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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!

An earlier version of this article appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 16, 2021.

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

This is small talk: something we often do to start a conversation.  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 making a little effort at 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.