No matter where I am, I hear complaints about how small talk is superficial, boring, and pointless. From my students, in online forums, and from my friends.
Sometimes they even go so far as to insult people who engage in small talk, calling them shallow, dull, and worthless.
In fact, I used to think the same thing, but now I see small talk from another perspective.
There are actually lots of benefits of small talk, and I’m going to share some small talk tips with you today.
By focusing on these benefits, you won’t just be less annoyed by small talk. You’ll also be better at it, since you will have a more positive attitude when you engage in small talk.
Small talk is polite
There are different types of small talk, but here we are talking about the extremely short conversations you might have with the cashier at the grocery store or with a colleague you pass in the hallway. You say hi, ask each other how the day is going, give a brief answer that’s positive, and move on. In this situation, most people will answer positively, even if they are having a bad day.
While this might seem absurd and pointless to some people, there are many things we do in society just to be polite: saying something before you start eating (like “bon apetit” in French or “Guten Apetit” in German), saying “bless you” or “Gesundheit” or “salud” after someone sneezes, or shaking hands when you meet someone.
These might have had a specific purpose many years ago, but nowadays we do them just to be polite. A short small talk conversation in certain circumstances is the same.
If you’re having trouble asking “How are you?” or answering it with “good” because you think it’s dishonest, don’t think of it as a question. Instead, think of it as a phrase that’s just a greeting. Kind of like how you say “goodbye” without thinking that it is actually short for “God be with you.”
Small Talk Gives You Information about the Other Person’s Mood
Now let’s look at another scenario. You are about to have a business meeting with a client and need to discuss some very important things. In the English speaking world, that conversation starts with some small talk. You discuss some light topics, like the weather, for a short while before you get into the main part of the meeting.
What are your thoughts on this? Many people see it as a waste of time and would prefer to get to the point of the meeting right away.
I understand the value of efficiency, but this bit of chatting can actually help you have a more successful meeting.
During this short chat, you can find out a lot about the other person’s mood. Are they excited? Are they tired? Are they frustrated?
Small talk tips: adapt
Armed with this new information, you can change the way you talk about things in the meeting. If they are frustrated, perhaps you can be more careful with how you explain your new idea. If they are tired, you can focus on the things that will get them excited.
The next time you make small talk before a meeting, see what you can learn about the other person’s mood. Don’t think of small talk as something you just need to get out of the way. Really focus not just on what is said, but HOW it’s said. You’ll see that this new knowledge can really come in handy during the interaction.
Small Talk Helps You Find Deeper Topics
If you meet someone at a Star Trek convention, you know you can talk about Star Trek. Right from the beginning of the conversation, you can go into detail about your favorite episode or thoughts on Captain Kirk, knowing you are both interested in the topic.
But what about when you meet someone at a bar? How do you know what topics you are both interested in talking about?
Helping you find those topics is one of the benefits of small talk. You start by asking what they did today and they say work, but don’t seem too interested in it. Then you ask what they did after work, and they say they went to the movies. You don’t really like talking about movies, but you still ask what movie. He answers that it was a movie set in Egypt, and you get really excited! You love Egypt and dream of visiting some day. It turns out that they love Egypt, too!
Now you’ve found a topic you can have a fun, interesting, and deep conversation about. All thanks to small talk.
Sure, it doesn’t always (or even often) work like that. But with small talk, you bring up little topics that have a chance of leading somewhere deeper and see if it works. If it doesn’t go anywhere, you move onto another topic until you find something you both want to talk about.
Small talk tips: summary
These are just a few of the ways that small talk can be useful for you. It shows that you care about the other person’s feelings. It helps you gauge someone’s mood before you work on something important. It brings up different topics that you can go deeper into if you both want to.
If you go into small talk with the attitude that it will add to your interaction, you will be able to realise these benefits of small talk, enjoy it, and even be better at it.
Nick Vance is passionate about languages, both learning and teaching them. Since moving to Germany from the United States six years ago, he’s learned German to fluency. Professionally, he teaches business English online via Skype. You can learn more about his online language lessons on his websites Skype Englisch (in German) and English with Nick (in English).