What’s the Big Deal About Small Talk?

April 8, 2021

English language coaching

“I see you’re wearing a Yankees cap.  Are you a baseball fan?”

This is small talk: a useful conversation-starter, or just an add-on to “Hi, how are you?”  Notice the comment (“Yankees cap”) + question (“you a fan?”) structure — we’ll come back to that soon when we discuss techniques.

But first — why bother reading about small talk?  After all, you probably do it naturally with people you want to interact with.  That’s great … but remember those awkward times when you wanted to interact with someone but couldn’t think of the right thing to say? 

Small talk can be a BIG challenge for anyone facing new or anxiety-inducing situations, including many key moments in our careers.  And small talk can be a BIG deal in relationship-building: people prefer to socialize and do business with others they feel comfortable with, and this sense of comfort can be established & maintained through light conversation that feels natural and builds rapport.

So strengthening your small talk skills can enhance your personal & professional encounters.  Here’s a simple formula that can remind us what small talk is, and what it’s for:

small talk = SHOWING INTEREST

You may ask: What if the person or situation is too new to make me feel “interested” yet?

I hear you!  That’s why the key word SHOWING is helpful.  Showing interest can come from (a) having genuine interest and expressing it … or (b) making an effort: finding something — anything — to comment on!

In the “Yankees cap” example, (b) is likely to apply to me, as I’m not a Yankees fan; I’m not even a baseball fan, and I have no natural interest in discussing baseball or baseball hats … but hey: I’m making an effort by noticing something and remarking on it!

You may ask: What if the person or situation is too intimidating or tense, and I feel literally frozen?

I know — I’ve been there too!  Sometimes we have to “break the icebefore showing interest.  (The “ice” in this idiom indicates the initial frozen state of a new social situation; the awkward paralysis of people together not communicating.)

One of the easiest ways to break the ice is asking about the weather.  This works even for remote video-conferencing and phone calls:

“How’s the weather where you are?”

Notice this question doesn’t even require knowing where the other person is, which makes it very easy to use.  It leads naturally to discussing where the other person is, where you are, and suddenly the “ice” is broken, the conversational stream is flowing, and now you can show interest!

“I heard you say you’re from Italy.  What part of Italy are you from?”

That’s another example of the comment + question structure.  Comments set context for questions, and sometimes even prompt them: I may say “you’re from Italy” without knowing what else to say … and “What part?” naturally emerges!  

And by adding space between questions, comments create more comfortable pacing: focus on me (comment); then you (question); me; then you.  And you, I hope, do the same!  Asking questions only turns small talk into an interrogation, which can be unpleasant for your partner.

The “Italy” example features an information question (“What part?”), which unlocks more conversational potential than most yes/no questions do.  Information questions — those beginning with who, what, where, when, why, which, how — elicit specific and often revealing responses.  In contrast, yes/no questions may result in one-word answers: “Yes.”  Or “No.”  And nothing more!

As your small talk warms up, think of simple questions — especially information questions and yes/no questions with like — to follow up on what your partner says:

— “Did you like growing up there?”

— “Oh really?  Why?”

— “When was that?”

— “Where was that?”

— “That’s interesting; and then what happened?”

— “Wow!  How did you handle that?”

Follow-ups are short, easy to generate, and more fun to answer.  Since they demonstrate you’re listening and showing interest, they encourage meaningful conversation and transform small talk into real engagement.


A version of this article appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 1, 2021.

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