Learn with Lloyd!

Small talk does not have to be interesting to be effective.  But you can make it more interesting (or at least less intimidating or unpleasant) if you develop a few good conversational habits.

If you’re not a native English speaker, and you’re trying to build relationships with Americans, strengthening your small talk skills can be extremely helpful in your professional and personal life.  Americans prefer to socialize and do business with people they feel comfortable with; this sense of comfort is often established through light conversation that feels natural and effortless to them — it may take some unnatural effort and strain on your part, but this pain will diminish as you practice the tips presented below!

-1- Focus your attention and imagination on the person you want to talk to.  Imagine what interests or concerns them.  Use your powers of empathy: the ability to put yourself in another person’s place and see the world from their perspective.  Ask yourself what you and your conversation partner may have in common, and start exploring for shared interests.  If this doesn’t work, try commenting positively on something you noticed about your partner — something he or she just did, just said, is wearing, etc.:

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

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

-2- Ask questions, especially information questions (those that begin with who, what, where, when, why, and how).  Information questions elicit longer, more interesting responses than simple yes/no questions.  In fact, shy people may answer a yes/no question with a simple “Yes” or “No” and stop there.  Some of the many advantages of questions are:

  • Questions focus on the other person’s attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs, so they are a selfless way to show your interest in others.
  • Once you’ve asked a question, you’ve transferred the job of keeping the conversation going to the other person.  You can relax, listen, and learn something.  What you hear and learn will give you something new to respond to, or to follow up with a more specific question.
  • Questions allow you to steer a conversation where you want it to go.  A good conversation is often guided by good questions, so if you want to avoid “boring” conversations, take the lead by asking thoughtful questions.

-3- IMPORTANT — Ask follow-up questions/comments that seem appropriate in the moment:

“Oh really?  Why?”

“When was that?”

“Where was that?”

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

“Wow!  How did you handle that?”

Notice these follow-up questions are open-ended: they seek more than a simple “yes” or “no.”  Since they demonstrate that you are really listening and interested in learning more about the speaker, they encourage meaningful responses and help keep the conversation flowing.

-4- Be sure to respond to any question or comment your partner offers.  He/she has just made the effort to move the conversation forward, so respond generously, with some animation.  If you find yourself stuck, use a basic response such as “That’s interesting” or “So do I” (casual but common equivalent: “Me too”) or “Neither do I” (casual: “Me neither”), and then add a related question or comment to continue the small talk chain:

A: Question or comment

B: Response + question or comment

A: Response + question or comment

B: Response + question or comment

etc.

Continuing the small talk chain takes a little effort, but it’s worth it!  You’ll make a better first impression and strengthen existing relationships if you can keep these light but important conversations going … and make them seem effortless, natural, and comfortable.

-5- Beware of asking too many questions: in small talk situations, people do not want to be interrogated.  If you’ve asked three or four questions, and your partner isn’t moving the conversation forward, consider other ways to get your partner involved:

  • Shift the focus to yourself for a while.  Comment on something that you’ve been actively thinking about, and while you’re talking, try to figure out a question related to your own interests that might engage your partner.
  • Focus on what’s happening around you.  For example, comment on something you noticed or learned about another person in the room.  But avoid gossiping (sharing personal, private, or negative information about people who are not participating in your conversation).
  • Comment on an item in the room, such as a picture on the wall, a book on a shelf, an object on a table, or the scene outside the window.  If the place is bare, picture your location geographically: where are you within the neighborhood, city, region, state, or country?  Think of one interesting aspect of the place where you both are — this is something you and your conversation partner have in common — and share it.
  • If you can’t think of anything interesting, comment on how you arrived there, whether you’ve been in the area before, and ask your partner questions on such “small” topics.

-6- Prepare for situations where you may need to small talk.  Before you arrive in a place where you’ll have to make conversation, imagine what topics might be comfortable for you to mention, and consider what kind of small talk questions people might ask you.  If you’re about to meet someone important for the first time and you want to make a good first impression, rehearse possible responses to typical or expected small talk questions in advance.

For example, if you’re scheduled for a job interview, consider the possibility that the interviewer may ask a question about how you traveled to the interview location.  Now, consider the possibility that your truthful answer at that moment could be negative — but you don’t want to get trapped into making useless negative comments while trying to make a positive first impression, especially in a job interview.  So consider telling a “white lie” (an innocent untruth), and then add a positive follow-up comment.

Let’s say you experienced some difficulties getting to an interview appointment, and right at the beginning of your conversation, the interviewer asks, “How was your trip over here?”  Which of the following responses would be more appropriate?

a) “It was fine.  Your location is quite convenient.”

b) “Oh, the subway was delayed, and the first train that came was full, so I couldn’t get on, and then….”

Since this is a job interview, not a casual chat with a colleague or friend, your best interests are served by response a).  If telling such a white lie is unnatural for you, coach yourself — rehearse such comments before you need them.  Notice the additional positive comment “Your location is quite convenient,” which helps to establish an upbeat tone and keep the small talk flowing (more on this in point 5 below).

Let’s say you had difficulty locating the building where the interview was scheduled to take place, and the interviewer happens to ask, “Did you have any trouble finding our building?”  Which of these responses would be more appropriate?

a) “No, it was pretty easy.  I really like the style of this building.”

b) “Actually, I asked two people for directions and both of them pointed me in the wrong direction, so I was lost until….”

Learn with Lloyd! Small talk plays an important role in American business culture.  However, too much of a good thing can be bad!  I got a call recently from an acquaintance who wanted to let me know that he was looking for work and wanted to know if I had any suggestions.  However, instead of getting to the point, he engaged in 10 minutes of small talk.  This would have been OK if he were a close friend, but we aren’t close, so I didn’t understand why he was asking about things like my family’s health!   

Here’s what he said: “Hi!  Long time no talk!  Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!  How have you been?  Did you go anywhere for the holidays?  So how is everything?  Are you still teaching at the university?  How’s your wife doing?  Is she still….?  Oh wow, that’s…!  And your parents — how are they doing?…  As for me, I’ve been….    And then X happened, and….   So I’m looking for a job and….  Can you give me some ideas on…?”

 I was getting impatient with the conversation, and when I finally understood that he was simply networking for useful ideas, I was eager to offer a few quick thoughts and bring the call to an end! 

Different cultures have different assumptions about making a request: the person who called me is from a culture in which 10 minutes of small talk is probably considered good manners.  If you’re from outside the USA, be aware that in requesting information, help, or favors, you’ll probably receive a warmer response from Americans if you make your request early, quickly, and directly

The conversation described above could have been more effective — and my response would have been more thoughtful and substantive — if the caller had been aware of American cultural expectations.  To start, he should have kept small talk to a minimum.  When speaking to acquaintances, associates, and colleagues — in person or on the phone — consider whether two or more of the following are true:

  1. You have a practical purpose or concrete goal for the conversation
  2. Your conversation partner is not a close friend
  3. You haven’t spoken to this person in a long time

 

If two or more of these are true, then limit your small talk to one minute or less (unless your partner initiates more small talk by asking questions).  In the case of my acquaintance, he could have made 2-3 brief small talk comments/questions — “Happy New Year!  How are you doing?  How’s your wife?” — and then moved on to the purpose of his call:

Purpose statement, part 1 — CONTEXT: “Well, the reason I’m calling you today is that I’m looking for a job and….”

Purpose statement, part 2 — REQUEST: “…I was wondering if I could ask you for any suggestions you might have about….”

When making requests or asking for favors from people whose relationship to you is cool or distant, or who may be busy or unreceptive to requests for help, get to the point early, clearly, and concisely, but also politely.  The request above features a few indirect words to soften its directness:

  • I was wondering: indirect introductory phrase
  • if I could ask you: indirect conditional, with the burden of action on the speaker “asking,” not the listener “giving”
  • any: meaning “any possible” — indicates the speaker does not assume the listener has suggestions to offer
  • might: conditional, with an implied “if” — “if you happen to have ideas, or if you can think of anything spontaneously, and if you would be willing to share your thoughts with me”

 

As this imaginary conversation continues, let’s assume YOU are the requester.  If you think the person you’ve contacted may be busy or preoccupied, or if you need the person’s full attention for more than 3 minutes, you should confirm whether this particular time is convenient for such a conversation.

Ask: “Is this a good time to talk?” 

Don’t say: “You sound/seem/look busy.  Are you busy?”  This is confusing because most people are likely to feel somewhat “busy” — and they’re not sure what “Are you busy?” really means.

* * *

If the other person indicates the time is NOT ideal or convenient, ask when a good time to talk would be.  Try to get the other person to propose a time or range of times that would suit his/her schedule.

Ask: “Would there be a better time when I could call you back?”

or: “Is there a particular time that might be more convenient for you?”

Don’t ask: “Can I call you back another time?” 

or: “Can we talk another time?”  This is slightly unpleasant because your partner can imagine the conversation resuming at some future inconvenient time.  It fails to express a desire to find a specific alternate time that would suit that person, and it invites a vague reply of “Yes” or “Sure,” which is not helpful to either of you.

* * *

If the person seems particularly busy, indicate the conversation will be short.

Say: “I just wanted to ask you a couple of specific questions.” 

or: “I just wanted to talk to you for 3 or 4 minutes.”

Don’t say: “I have so many questions I want to ask you!”   Your listener is likely to think, “Oh no!”

* * *

Email can be an excellent way to continue such a conversation.  Unlike a phone call or face-to-face conversation, email gives the recipient time to consider your message and compose a response.  In the case of my acquaintance, an email would have been more effective for both of us than a phone call.  However, the context for every conversation is unique, so use your judgment in choosing (or combining) phone, face-to-face, or email communication. 

For example, during a phone conversation you might realize that email would be efficient for sharing some particular information.  If you propose to send your partner an unsolicited (uninvited) email, refer to it in light, reader-friendly terms such as “short” or “a couple of questions.”

Ask: “Could I email you a short description of what I have in mind?”

or: “Could I email you a couple of  questions I wanted to ask you?”

Don’t say: “Let me email you more information.”  This is somewhat unwelcome because it sounds like an unwanted burden — after all, this person did not ask to be contacted and is unlikely to be eager to receive a load of unsolicited “information.”

* * *

If your conversation ends with an understanding that your partner will contact you if he/she has something of interest for you, be sure to confirm your latest phone number and email address.  

Ask: “Could I give you my email address?  It’s…, and my telephone number is…..”

or: “Let me make sure you have my latest email address.  It’s…, and my phone number is….”

Don’t ask: “Do you have my email address?”  This is slightly uncomfortable because people may not be sure they have it, or they may wonder whether you’re still using the address they may have in their contact list, and they may not be able to check their records right now.  Also, this question invites a vague reply of “I’m sure I do” or “I think so” with no real confirmation, which could result in no email following this conversation!

Even better, offer to send them a follow-up email so they have your address readily available, even if the current conversation doesn’t require a follow-up.  Then they can relax, knowing your contact information will be forthcoming, and your email message may help stimulate a thoughtful, substantive reply, which is the result you’re looking for!

Say: “I can send you a quick email so you have my latest address and telephone number.”

Don’t say: “I’ll send you a follow-up email so you can add me to your contacts.”  This is presumptuous; the term “follow-up” is fine in the workplace, but in a case requiring no follow-up, or when you and the other person are not colleagues, “follow-up” sounds too official.  Also, “so you can…” presumes that people will react in specific, prescribed ways.  Let them decide what to do with your incoming email — don’t dictate what they should do, and don’t assume they’ll do what exactly what you want or need them to do.

* * * * *