Small talk is polite conversation about insignificant and non controversial matters. When you ask people how they feel about small talk, their reaction is almost universally one of reluctant tolerance. It’s a necessary evil, used in generally large events, either social or professional, where we all experience different levels of discomfort, when we would rather be hanging out with our friends.
But in fact, small talk has greater significance than we imagine. Whether we are in our element as social glad handers, or it fills us with dread and horror, it provides a powerful and vital function. Small talk is the basis of relationship building, serving to create a secure environment by managing stress and anxiety. In basic anthropological terms it establishes if someone is “friend or foe,” albeit in a cocktail party, with a glass of usually inferior wine, rather than in a cave, wielding a club.
Dr. Justine Copeland in her book “Small Talk” examines the vital role of inconsequential chat in all human communication. The reality is most relationships start with small talk whether interviews, political delegations, networking events or wedding receptions. In G8 summits the first comments amongst world leaders will not be ” what’s your position on the Ukraine/euro/sustainable energy” but the mundane “How is your /hotel/kids/wife/husband?” The first questions a couple might ask each other, will be centred around where they are you from and “what do you do?” rather than “Will you marry me?” although I’m sure that has happened!
The same is true professionally.
So if small talk is your worst nightmare, what can you do to minimise the stress?
The most gifted small talkers are the ones who seem to effortlessly work the room, with a smile and a word for everyone. They are also the ones who are best prepared. They will know the demographics of the attendees, maybe even the backgrounds of a number. They will have followed the news and be up to date on key events, whether it’s a royal princess or a sporting score. Ladies this is one area we can improve on being better informed about sports and male interests.
Go to each event with a short list of current news headlines being careful to steer clear of potential minefields: religion and politics.
A good firm handshake and a smile is the best for first introductions. Kiss or no kiss is a question that crops up regularly. That will depend on the person and the culture. Being British, where at one time the only people you kissed on the cheek were your parents, cheek kissing is now very common especially amongst better known business acquaintances. However, it is still considered by Debretts to be inappropriate professionally.
3. Aim for stories, not answers
Always ask leading and open-ended questions. Who, what, why, where and how? All of these produce fuller answers, especially if the speaker gets the opportunity to talk about themselves. And we all love to talk about ourselves. If someone is even more difficult to engage, give them a range of alternatives. “Which route did you take to get here? Highway A or B?”
4. Back up questions
The fail safe back up questions are always related to the context, setting or the event, whether the host, food, content of any presentation, speakers . “How do you know the host…?” “How did you become a member of…? ” “How did you enjoy…..?”
Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.” ― Fran Lebowitz
Note to self – don’t talk about the wine, although it is a good opening line! If you are focusing on professional topics shift to the personal. A good way to do this is ” How do you find time to do anything outside work ?” followed by “What do you get involved in?”.
Ladies don’t make your kids the focus of that part of the conversation.
5. Beware the repetition trap
Have you ever noticed in small talk how we tend to repeat something that has been said to us? In our effort to be polite and agreeable, we often answer by repeating observations, or just agreeing in a non-committal way. So a comment such as:-
“Great buffet” might get a response such as “Yes, it is.”
You might try to open it up with “I wonder how they made …..?” or “Who are the caterers?”
6. Mix it up
I have one contact, who depending on the person he is talking to likes to ask one slightly unusual, eccentric question.
“What do you think would happen if we lived in a world where networking events were banned?
So what do you think?
What other tips would you add?