Writing coaching

Small talk plays an important role in American culture, as we discussed in a recent post.  However, too much of a good thing can backfire: that is, produce the opposite of the intended (good) effect.  

When we have a special request or favor to ask of someone, starting with a little small talk is natural, but if we do NOT have a close personal relationship with that someone, it’s often useful to limit initial chitchat to 2-3 exchanges, and then introduce our request with minimal context … and ASK!

Let’s strategize about small talk first, and then the request.  Why strategize?  Because we’ll probably be a little nervous: asking for help from people outside our closest social circle can be psychologically demanding.  This isn’t something we do every day, so choosing the right words and the right way to say them can be challenging.  

If you intend to ask a favor of an acquaintance, associate, colleague, or anyone else who is NOT a close friend or relative — and especially if you haven’t spoken to this person in a long time — try to limit small talk to one minute or less (unless your partner keeps it going by asking YOU some questions).

This little bit of foresight may help you AVOID a one-sided “exchange”:

A: Hi!  Long time no talk!  Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!  How have you been?  

B: [short response]

A: Did you go anywhere for the holidays?  

B: [short response]

A: So how is everything?  Are you still teaching at the university?  

B: [short response]

A: How’s your wife doing?  Is she still in the fashion industry?  

B: [short response]

A: Oh wow, that’s great!  And your parents — how are they doing? 

If you find yourself driving this kind of “interrogation,” cut it short: your partner will be relieved!  Notice this example includes a couple of “dead-end” yes/no questions likely to elicit yes- or no-only responses.  

But there’s an even more serious problem here: the question content may be unwelcome.  Your partner may not be in the mood right now to discuss work, wife, or parents — especially if your relationship is not close.  Imposing such questions could even affect how the other person responds to your eventual request.

Now let’s consider how you might structure your request.  Expect to feel a little anxious (it’s normal) and do your best to push through it.  Express your purpose in two very short parts — CONTEXT (essential background information, condensed into one sentence or phrase) and REQUEST:

CONTEXT: Well, the reason I’m calling you today is that I’m looking for a job and … 

REQUEST: … I was wondering if I could ask you for any suggestions you might have about …

Note that the CONTEXT does not tell a long story.  Long-story-SHORTextremely short! — is our goal here.  

And notice the REQUEST features indirect words to soften its impact: 

I was wondering: common introductory softener; signals that a request (or other special/sensitive remark) is coming, alerting the listener to a “turn” in the conversational flow.

if I could ask you: “if” conditional, with the burden of action on the speaker “I” asking, not the listener “you” giving (NOT: “if you could give me …”); this additional signal gently & politely announces, “Incoming question!”

any: meaning “any possible” or “if you happen to have any”; the speaker does not assume the listener has suggestions to offer, which lowers expectations and helps lighten a request.

might: conditional modal, with an implied if”: if you happen to have ideas, if you can think of anything spontaneously, if you would be willing to share your thoughts.

In most routine situations in the USA, you’ll probably receive warmer and more thoughtful responses to your requests if you limit small talk, get to your point relatively quickly, choose words that burden YOU instead of the other person, and soften your wording with a few “if”s, “might”s & “any”s!


This article is a revised version of an earlier post that appeared in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 16, 2021.