Small talk is one of those things that can tie people in knots. To some, it comes naturally, and they can happily patter away about anything with anyone, in any sort of gathering.
To others, particularly the more introverted among us, the very idea of making polite conversation about the weather or current events seems pointless, or even fills them with dread.
In fact, small talk – once coined by eminent anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski as ‘phatic communication’, meaning social exchanges that don’t seek or offer information of real value – serves as a way of managing interpersonal relationships and ‘lubricating’ social interactions, acting as a crucial bonding element across many facets of society.
How are you settling in?
One area where small talk can become a big concern is in the workplace. Job interviews, or settling into a company in a new role, are critical areas where your ability to interact fluidly and pleasantly with others can be thrown suddenly into the spotlight.
It pays to remember that small talk is an art that can be learnt, and sometimes it can make all the difference between landing that job, and earning the respect of your peers.
With that in mind, here are some pointers that may help those who may have struggled in their social interactions in the workplace.
1. Keep it positive
It’s true. Nobody likes a whiner, or a snitch, or a negative Nelly. As such, try always to steer conversations towards something positive that you enjoy, or that the person you’re talking to enjoys. And definitely don’t talk about a boss you dislike. Focus on the good. It will do wonders for your mood, and general morale.
2. Find common ground
Try to find something you have in common with the person you’re talking to. It could be something you mutually enjoy. Conversations are always easier when you realise you’re both into the same thing, or share a similar perspective on a given topic.
3. But enough about me…
Look, you’re not always going to find common points of interest with everyone you meet. And that’s ok. Instead, why not ask them about themselves? People generally love to talk about themselves, as they don’t have to think so hard what to talk about. See what they like. Remember, you don’t always have to be interested in something to have a conversation about it.
4. Opening up
You know what works in small talk? Open questions, that can’t be easily answered with simple yes and no responses. For instance, the difference between asking ‘What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?’ instead of ‘Do you have any hobbies?’ is enormous. The former allows much more room for a conversation to evolve organically.
5. Boring talk is boring
Yes, small talk is often about common touchstones or universal things. And as tempting as it is to default to subjects like the weather, or how busy the traffic was, it pays to try harder. Have a think about something interesting and topical, such as a notable news event or something relevant to the role you are interviewing for. Needless to say, it’s best to try and avoid potentially inflammatory subjects like religion and politics.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
Everything gets easier with practice, even small talk. If you know you aren’t very good at something, what do you do? You practice. So, next time you grab a coffee from the kitchen, try and strike up a conversation.
It may feel awkward at first, but over time it will get a lot easier. And, the more you show you’re happy to talk, the more chance people will wish to talk with you. Like most things, practice makes perfect.
Of course, be aware of overcompensating. After all, you don’t want to cross the line into waffle, especially in interviews! Remember, small talk is small. So think about your interests and hobbies, and make sure you can give a concise and interesting description of it if someone engages you in the kitchen.
Finally, don’t forget to actually listen! Nobody enjoys talking to someone who is just waiting for his or hers’ next opportunity to speak.
There are plenty of books available to help you start to master this ‘small’ skill, for big impact. What have you read that’s made a difference? Share your stories about anything that’s helped you improve your interpersonal skills in the comments below!