Tag Archives: casual conversation

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.

Small Talk

How and When to End a Conversation

Knowing when to change the topic and how to end a conversation are as important as knowing how to start a conversation and make small talk.

Each speaker must be attentive to verbal and non-verbal cues from the other which indicate that:

  • the conversation can be continued
  • the subject should be changed
  • the conversation should end

Small talk at the office between two people who do not know each other well may center around the upcoming weekend, length of time worked there, the commute, new equipment, cafeteria food, etc.

Suppose one speaker enthusiastically says to another, “Looking forward to the weekend?”, assuming the other is tired and needs some time away.  Instead, the second speaker says something like, “No, I’m not.  I’d rather stay and finish my report.”

Likewise, saying “I can’t believe how bad the coffee is here!” may elicit a shrug, shake of the head or silence if the other person likes it.

In both cases, the other person’s response is a cue for the first speaker to change the subject and try to find something they have in common if they want to continue.

At business social events and conferences, people are expected to walk around and talk to a number of people they don’t know: to mingle.

The idea is to start and maintain casual conversations with others and then move on — sort of like speed dating.  People often exchange business cards.

If one speaker does not maintain eye contact and keeps looking over the other’s shoulder, or seems completely disinterested in the discussion, it is likely a cue to end the conversation.  Saying something like, “Well, it’s been nice talking to you.  I should go and say hello to some of the other people I haven’t met” is one way to end a conversation in a non-abrupt manner.

Or suppose one speaker has introduced a topic, like baseball, in which the other has expressed a lack of interest. Despite attempts to change the subject, the first speaker persists in talking about baseball. In desperation, the other speaker says he/she should go and meet some of the other people.  If the first speaker tries to continue the conversation, he or she has missed the cue the other speaker wants to end it.

Small talk is closely related to the need for people to maintain ‘positive face’ and to feel approved by those who are listening to them. Failure to respond appropriately to verbal and non-verbal cues when making small talk can leave a negative first impression and may affect future social interaction.


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.

Small Talk

What it is and Why we do it

Small talk is a short, informal conversation or discourse and a type of social communication.  It is really conversation for its own sake.

Small talk is usually made between people who do not know each other well or at all.

It is used for a number of purposes: to “break the ice” and start a conversation between two people; to keep a conversation going and fill in ‘gaps’ to avoid awkward silences; to fill time while waiting for something, and to end a conversation in a non-abrupt manner.

Small talk also allows two speakers to show each other that they have friendly intentions and, in business, to establish each other’s reputation and level of expertise. Used to fill in ‘gaps’, small talk makes people- who as social beings find silence uncomfortable, even disrespectful – to feel more at ease.  Using small talk to end a conversation affirms the relationship between both parties and avoids ending the exchange suddenly.

In workplace situations, small talk often occurs between co-workers and peers, as well as between managers and supervisors and the staff who report to them.

The need to make small talk depends on the nature of the relationship between the people having the conversation. For example, if you see a co-worker in the lunchroom tor the first time, you might introduce yourself, say hello and comment on the weather or sports. The next time you see each other might be the right time to initiate a casual conversation provided the other person smiles and acknowledges you.

While small talk may seem like meaningless chatter to some internationally- trained professionals, it is an important skill they need to learn.

Small talk is not ‘small’ in importance: it can help a person build a meaningful connection with someone else, and will benefit him or her in their professional work.