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Business English Skill Set - Small Talk

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Lesson 1, Topic 1
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What is Small Talk?

Kate July 21, 2020
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Small talk happens in everyday life. Not only is it an important business skill, but an important life skill.


Where does small talk occur?

Everywhere!

In a business setting – In the lift, between business meetings, on the phone, when you bump into someone in the hallway or canteen. Small talk is an essential skill for building relationships and successful businesses.

In daily life – When you bump into a neighbour or an acquaintance, at the bus stop, waiting in line to buy coffee, at the hairdressers, completing any sort of transaction (at the bank, the supermarket, a clothing store.)


What should I talk about?

Common topics for small talk include:

  • The weather
  • Mutual acquaintances (although be sure not to engage in gossip – more on this later)
  • The location or venue
  • Nearby locations – restaurant recommendations, days out, places of interest
  • Sporting events (upcoming or recent)
  • Entertainment – perhaps you read a good book, found a useful blog, or listened to an interesting podcast recently that you’d recommend
  • Hobbies – if you enjoy doing something, you tend to enjoy talking about it
  • Travel – have you been somewhere interesting recently?

What should I NOT talk about?

Knowing which topics to avoid is just as important!

  • Gossip. Gossip is a definite no. Gossiping is extremely unprofessional and a fast-track route to losing the respect of colleagues and clients.
  • Politics. As a general rule, political topics are off the table.
  • Religion
  • Money
  • Offensive jokes

If you’re unsure whether a topic is a good call or not, your best bet is to err on the side of caution and avoid it. Practise sensitivity and tact.


Let’s have a look at some examples of good and bad small talk:

(Bumping into a colleague in the lift)

Simon: Hi, Bill! How have you been?

Bill: Not too bad, thanks. And yourself? How’s everything going with the Green’s project?

Simon: Yeah fine, thanks. It’s going well. We hope to have things wrapped up by the end of the week.

Bill: That’s good to hear. I know you were all working really hard on that.

Topic: Work

Good or bad?: Good


(Mike sees a new colleague who started last week by the vending machine)

Mike: Hi, Mary, isn’t it?

Mary: Yeah that’s right.

Mike: Nice to meet you. I’m Mike.

Mary: Nice to meet you, too!

Mike: So what’s it like working with Anne? I heard she’s really picky!

Mary: Umm, it’s fine…

Topic: Gossip

Good or bad?: Bad. Mary is clearly uncomfortable and has got a very bad first impression of Mike.


(John bumps into his neighbour at the supermarket)

John: Hi, Jane! How’s it going?

Jane: Yeah fine, thanks! How are things with you? Lovely weather, isn’t it!

John: Yeah it’s fine weather! We’re heading over to Jill’s sister’s this evening for a barbecue so I’m just stocking up on some beers.

Jane: Oh that will be nice. Tell them both I said hi!

John: Will do!

Topic: Family, mutual acquaintances.

Good or bad?: Good


(Introducing a new member to the team)

Lionel: Hi Kelly, I’d like you to meet Sara. She’s from our London branch. She travelled down today.

Sara: Hi Kelly, nice to meet you.

Kelly: Nice to meet you, Sara. Wow, what a lovely coat! Is that a Burberry? How much did it cost? Those things are so expensive!

Topic: Money/personal appearance.

Good or bad?: Bad. Whilst the intention may be good (giving a compliment on Sara’s coat), talking about money or personal finances is not a good topic for small talk.


Top Tips

Do you feel better when you go home having had several shallow conversations about nothing in particular with acquaintances, or a couple of really good, engaging conversations where you felt the person was both interested in you and interesting?

Here are some tips for giving your small talk that extra spark:

  • Talk about something new – The weather is a fine topic for small talk, but just how many conversations do you want to have per day about how sunny it is outside whilst you’re indoors working?
  • Ask questions – show that you care.
  • Ask interesting questions – Ask questions which invite further conversation or discussion. If a colleague is talking about his trip to Rome last summer, rather than ‘when did you go?’ ‘where did you stay?’ how about asking ‘what made you want to visit Rome?’ – this invites a deeper discussion rather than just asking about the basic details.
  • Read the room – If you find you’re not getting much response on a certain topic, try to steer the conversation around to something else. If the person you’re talking to seems nervous or shy, they might want you to do most of the talking. If they are more outgoing and confident with speaking English they may want to do more of the talking.
  • Make it culturally appropriate – Remember that doing international business means communicating with people from all over the world with different backgrounds, opinions and political beliefs to what may be the norm in your own country.
  • Find a connection (but don’t force it) – Try to find common ground or a shared interest, something that can help you to ‘click’ with the person you’re conversing with.