Small Talk

Rules of Conversation

Even though small talk is casual conversation between two speakers who do not know each other well, there are certain guidelines that both parties are expected to follow – particularly in the workplace.

First, if one speaker asks a question, he/she should always comment on the answer given by the other or ask another question related to the topic.

As an example, suppose a businessman from Japan is visiting a client in Canada.  He is speaking to the production manager at the Honda plant in Alliston, Ontario.

The production manager asks, “Have you ever been to our plant before?” The client replies, “No. In fact, the only time I’ve been in Canada was for an auto exhibition five years ago.”  The manager then says, “How about I show you around our plant and then we can have some lunch?”

Why is the production manager’s response not appropriate?  Instead of abruptly changing the subject and asking a question about an unrelated topic, he should have commented on his visitor’s answer.  He could have asked him questions about the exhibition — where it was, what companies were represented, etc.

To keep the conversation going, provided the other speaker has shown an interest in the topic, one should ask open-ended questions: asking questions which elicit only “Yes” or “No” does not help to maintain the ‘flow’ in the  conversation.

Second, one should not interrupt the other speaker while he/she is talking. One speaker could show interest during a pause by saying something like, “I see” or ‘That’s interesting”, or nodding his/her head to show agreement.  Each speaker should listen carefully to what the other is saying.

Just as it is inappropriate to interrupt the other speaker, it is disrespectful to interrupt two other speakers who are carrying on a conversation.

Third, both speakers should maintain eye contact.  In many Western societies, a person who fails to is often regarded as unfriendly or impersonal, or rude.  Staring at the other person makes him/her feel uncomfortable and is considered disrespectful.  Also, speakers need to be aware of non-verbal messages they might be sending, including crossing their arms, fiddling with something in their pants pocket, tapping their toes, or shifting from one leg to the other.

Small talk is about building a relationship with another person. Speakers who conduct small talk need to be aware of conventions and unwritten rules to guide their conversations and build successful business connections.