Small Talk

What Topics Do We Discuss?

The ability to make small talk – to initiate, maintain and end a conversation – is an important social skill.

What people make small talk about is very much related to their culture and, especially, to their public and private ‘life spaces’.

A person’s public life space is the part which he/she is happy to share with people they meet on a casual or short-term basis. A person’s private or personal life space in the part they keep to themselves. Peoples’ public and private life spaces differ widely depending on their culture.  For example, people from East Indian and Asian cultures have ‘smaller’ private life spaces than those in the U.S. and Canada.

In the Canadian workplace, there are certain topics which are considered appropriate to make small talk about. The first and most common is the weather. No matter if it’s sunny, cloudy, rainy, chilly, or snowy, people who do not know each other well or at all frequently start a conversation with a comment or question about the weather.  For example, one might say, “Beautiful weather we’re having, don’t you think?”

Another topic that is usually ‘safe’ is current events or news, such as sports or entertainment. For example, two speakers might discuss their countries’ performance at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games or at the FIFA World Cup games in Rio de Janeiro.

Other news items are safe to discuss provided they are not controversial issues such as laws concerning abortion or same-sex marriage.

People in an office building might discuss upcoming events like a move to a new facility or a rearrangement of office spaces.

If there is something that both speakers have in common, that may be acceptable for them to discuss.

However – and internationally-trained professionals need to be aware of this – there are topics which are not considered appropriate to make small talk about. Marital status, whether one has children or not, age and income are not considered acceptable topics between people who do not know each other well. Nor are sex, religion and politics.

Compliments that are genuine and positive about clothing and hairstyle are appropriate; however, positive or negative comments about a person’s body are not.

Making negative remarks about someone not involved in the conversation is also unacceptable.

In order to establish healthy business relationships with co-workers, supervisors and managers, as well as clients, internationally-trained professionals must be aware of, and respect their colleagues’ personal life spaces.