Small talk gets a bad rap for being shallow, meaningless and for some of us, very awkward. After all, does that dude in accounting you always run into in the hallway really care how you're doing? (Probably not, but he'll always ask you anyway.) Still, since it's such an unavoidable part of daily life, being good at it certainly matters, because knowing how to make small talk, in a way, is knowing how to talk to anyone.
But there's a career element to small talk, too.
According to Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas, small talk is pretty much networking, where the goal is to leave a positive impression and potentially build a future relationship. And as we've all heard time and time again, to get ahead, it's not what you know, but who you know. To help you become better at small talk the polite and proper way, we asked Gottsman to share her top tips.
Hate the uncomfortable silence that follows when you simply don't have anything to say? You can cut down on this awkwardness by listening to what the other person is saying and asking questions based on it. So the new person at the office just told you she moved from Idaho? Your next question could be, "What brought you here?" That way, there are fewer pauses and the conversation flows.
Small talk should be more about the other person.
If you're not so confident talking about yourself, don't worry: Gottsman says you shouldn't be doing most of the talking anyway. She suggests the 60/40 rule: spend 60 percent of the conversation listening and asking questions and spend the other 40 percent speaking.
Watch your body language.
You may have the best questions for your colleague, but if you look like you want to be somewhere else during the conversation, then you're not making the best impression. Gottsman recommends the following: face the person, look the person in the eyes and make direct eye contact 40 to 60 percent of the time. If you overdo the eye contact, you may seem overbearing, but if you don't give enough eye contact, you may appear disinterested. Also, keep your arms uncrossed, and have your feet firmly planted on the ground; don't shuffle from foot to foot. In addition, make sure to avoid scanning the room, fidgeting or checking your phone or watch for texts or the time, which may also signal boredom. As for hand gestures, keep them to a minimum, since the more you use, the more nervous you'll look.
Arm yourself with positive news and info about the latest shows and movies to serve as potential small-talk topics, Gottsman says. (One more reason to binge-watch a new Netflix series.) The point is to find subjects that anyone can talk about. Keep things light and steer clear of subjects that could be offensive, such as politics or religion. If there's someone in the office you particularly want to talk to, see if you can learn a few things about her beforehand.
Know when and where to initiate.
An important part of how to make small talk is determining when it's appropriate. According to Gottsman, the best times and places to bring up the storm last weekend, the funny viral video on Facebook or that new TV show that premiered last night are office parties, holiday events, before and after staff meetings, in the hallway and in the lunchroom. Chances are, your teammates will be more open to casual conversation at these places, so you'll be able to build rapport.
Avoid revealing too much.
You may be slowly recovering from a terrible cold or mourning the recent loss of your beloved pet, but should you be bringing that up as your colleague is helping himself to some coffee at the office kitchen? Probably not. "When someone says, 'How are you?' You never want to tell them the truth," says Gottsman. If you're not close, they likely don't want such personal details.
Handle a bad joke with a smile.
In general, avoid the artificial, but smiling in response to a lame quip is more a sign of goodwill and a gesture that you appreciate their efforts. Hey, at least you're not fake laughing!
Don't let the conversation drag.
The great thing about small talk is it's supposed to be brief—just four to six minutes, according to Gottsman—so don't ramble on or let the other person chat up a storm if you have places to go. It's time to exit when the conversation starts to lull. "Close the conversation by saying goodbye," says Gottsman, and, in a professional setting, "always extending your hand for a handshake."
Don't force it.
How to make small talk when a chat isn't going well because the other person is busy or isn't interested? Don't take it personally or push for the talk to continue, because it can get even more awkward REALLY fast. "People can tell when you're just pulling things out of the air," says Gottsman. "The reality is you don't connect with everyone. It’s your job to find the people that are a good fit."