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Why make small talk?

Demonstrating your ability to get along with colleagues and clients is vital in the modern workplace, whether you like it or not.

Those short conversations you have before a meeting or when you’re killing time between presentations at a conference etc. are more important than you realise.

Recent research shows four minutes of small talk can reveal key personality traits!

So next time you’re in a business setting and have the opportunity to make some idle chit chat, don’t pass it up.  It could have an impact on your career.

Without being aware of it – people are sussing you out.

Are you worthwhile knowing?  Can they trust you?  Could they do business with you? Would you be the ideal person for that new role that’s coming up?

And you, my friend, are subconsciously doing the same thing.

Small talk is not a one way street.

And it presents opportunities to build trust and loyalty, whether that’s with your colleagues, new boss or clients.  People buy into people.  So whether you want to get new business or develop professionally you need to appear adept at small talk.


So how do you do it?

1. Initiate 

Show you’re open to making small talk.  Make casual eye contact, smile and have an open approachable stance.

If you’re at a conference or large meeting.  Smile, if you recognise someone, even if you don’t remember their name.

You can say something like:

    • Hi, I’m [name], I think we’ve met before.


    • Hi, I’m [name] from [organisation name], I think we’ve met before.


    • Hi, have we met before? I’m [name] from [organisation name].

Notice how the person introduces themselves, say their name during the conversation – this makes people feel more comfortable.  And helps you remember their name.  Double win.

Follow this up with an open question such as:

    • So, what are you working on at the moment?  
    • How’s your day been so far?
    • How’s business these days?
    • What did you think of the presentation?
    • Is this the first time you’ve been to this conference?
    • How did you get into [industry/job title/]?
    • How are you finding [town/city/the conference]?

Never met them before.  No problem. Begin the conversation about your surroundings: this is where the weather comes in, or how they got to the location etc.

Use a tag question – they were almost made for small talk.

Say something like this:

    • It’s [adjective], isn’t it?

Adjective options: hot, cold, beautiful, noisy, hectic, busy, fascinating, interesting, 

complicated, confusing, brilliant etc.

You need to be prepared to follow their response with an open question.

For example:

YOU: It’s noisy, isn’t it?

THEM: Yes, it is.

YOU:  I’m struggling to think clearly!  What do you think of the conference so far? 

Know someone fairly well.  Try something like this:

    • How’re things [name]?
    • How’s life treating you, [name] ?
    • How was your weekend?
    • What did you get up to at the weekend?
    • How’s work been lately?
    • Are you busy these days?
    • How’s business?


2. Listen actively and show you’re interested 

Focus on the other person. Make them feel important and interesting – this also takes the pressure off you.

Consider your responses, it will help you avoid saying anything inappropriate and make you seem thoughtful – a valued character trait in most workplace situations.

Questions are your friend.

Keep the conversation going with follow-up questions. Again use open questions, you don’t want the conversation to turn into an interrogation!

The better informed you are about your organisation, your industry and current affairs the easier it will be to make small talk.


3. Safe and not so Safe Topics 

You make small talk in your native language all the time.  So I’d say you know which topics are safe and which aren’t.

They are pretty much the same in most English speaking and non-English speaking countries.

The general consensus in English speaking countries is that talking about money, religion, politics or sex is not a good idea, but this depends on your industry, who you’re talking to, how well you know them and the context of the conversation.

It’s also generally best to avoid comments about people’s appearance. Though it’s OK to say something like ‘Nice tie.’ to a colleague you know reasonably well.

If you’re unsure, stick to the weather, current events or local news.

Food is always a good option – a new restaurant’s opened nearby? Perfect. Have they been?  Would they recommend it? Are they planning to go?

Sounds boring?  Don’t worry.  Remember, these are just ‘openers’, the conversation could end up anywhere.


4. Know when to end the conversation

Not everyone welcomes small talk.  And hey, that’s fine.  We all have those moments or days when we just want to be left alone.

So pay attention and watch out for the following red flags.

1. Closed body language:

      • Crossed arms or legs
      • A serious expression

2. Distracted behaviour

      • Looking at their phone or watch
      • Not making eye contact
      • Looking around the room or out the window

3. Forced conversation

      • One-word answers
      • Not listening actively, e.g., smiling, nodding, making positive affirmations (hmm, really, ah, yes, etc.)
      • Not asking questions
      • Any look of irritation or impatience

If you notice any of the red flags, change the topic of conversation.

If they persist, end the conversation.  Remember small talk is a two-way thing.  You’ve sussed them out and found them lacking – move on.


5. How to end a conversation

Ending a conversation can be easier said than done and is often the hardest part of mastering small talk.  It can often feel embarrassing and end a little bit awkwardly.  However, it’s worth remembering the other person probably wants to end the conversation too!

Here’s how:

i. Choose the appropriate time
    • during a lull in the conversation
    • when it’s your turn to speak

What to say:

      • Well, it was good/nice/great chatting to you.  
      • It was lovely to meet you.  I hope to see you at X [name a future event]
      • It’s been great talking to you. I really enjoyed our conversation.
      • It was a pleasure meeting you.  I really enjoyed hearing about…

+ direct approach

+ works well if the other person is also happy to end the conversation

– can offend if the other person is still enthusiastic about the conversation


ii. provide a reason for ending the conversation:
    • you need to grab something to eat or drink
    • you’ve seen someone you really need to speak to
    • it’s getting late and you have to catch the train/bus/get home

What to say:

      • Lovely to meet you.  I’d better go check in with my boss/colleague because I promised I’d call them.
      • It was great talking to you.  I’ve just seen someone I really need to speak to because I missed them earlier.
      • It was lovely chatting to you.  I’d better grab some food before it all goes because I haven’t eaten since breakfast/lunch.
      • Wonderful meeting you.  I need to dash to the bathroom because the presentation starts soon.

+ any reason will do if you use the word ‘because’ according to behavioural psychologist Susan Weinschenk in Psychology Today.

+ won’t cause any offence


iii. provide your conversation partner with an excuse
    • If you don’t feel confident enough to give a reason for yourself, provide a reason for your partner

What to say:

      • Lovely talking to you.  I’ll let you grab some food.
      • Great to meet you.  I’ll let you mingle some more.  
      • Well, thanks for the chat.  I’ll let you go.  
      • Lovely chatting to you.  I should let you talk to [name]/other people.
      • Anyway, I’ll let you get yourself a drink.  Thanks for the chat.

+ allows you to end the conversation while conferring respect to whoever you were chatting with


My final piece of advice is don’t think of small talk as ‘meaningless’ or ‘unimportant’. It can improve collaboration, creativity, innovation and performance in the workplace, according to the Harvard Business Review.  It can lead to new friendships with colleagues and open up unexpected opportunities and, perhaps, a new role or job.

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