Succeed in America

Overcome Cultural and Linguistic Barriers. Improve Effectiveness

nara@SucceedinAmerica.com 



One of the most common questions I get from my seminar participants is “How do I begin a conversation at work?” In other words, “How do I start small talk?”  This is a great question because the importance of small talk is huge in business and you need to use it to your advantage.  And if you are a non-native speaker of English, as added benefit, practicing small talk will increase your English language proficiency.

First, what is small talk? Let’s define it. It is non-business related conversation. It is discussing things unrelated to business and work, such as weather, family, hobbies, or weekend plans.

Why making small talk is important? Here is why. You can be the best specialist in the field but,  progress in your career, is highly dependent on your ability to build good working relationships with people at work. Why? Let’s face it — our success depends on people. Small talk is an effective way to connect with people and to build relationships, including relationships at work.

Can you engage in small talk at a business meeting?  Yes, you can, but you need to know when and how.  Here are a few important tips:

1. When. Always make sure you arrive at the meeting a few minutes before start time. You can and should make small talk while you wait for the meeting to start. Dominant word here —“before.”

2. What topics to discuss? You should discuss things unrelated to the meeting (general-interest subjects)  such as weekend plans, weather, family, hobbies, mentioned above, and movies, theater, sports, books, food, travel.

3. What small talk topics to avoid? Generally, avoid any topic that may concern private or personal matters. There are three major topics you should avoid when socializing in the United States: personal finances, politics, and religion.

  • Personal finances: Personal money management in the US is considered to be a private matter. Asking about personal spending or income is considered very rude. Especially, do not discuss salaries or how much another person makes. Matters of general interest, such as prices of gas or groceries would be acceptable. 
  • Discussing politics: Avoid political discussions. Politics is a very complicated and personal topic and is not an acceptable friendly small talk.  
  • Discussing religion: Religion and religious views  are also considered to be a private  and very personal matter and should not be discussed in business environment.

My best piece of advice for polite  small talk  —  always avoid any subject that may be of  an emotional nature.

Here are some more tips and examples:

  1. Look approachable: smile, have eye contact with others, have an upright posture, and open stance.
  2. Don’t be afraid to initiate a conversation. Say: “Hi, John (Eddie, Laura), how are you?”
  3. Keep a positive, light tone, don’t get too emotional, and listen.
  4. Always finalize a conversation graciously. Don’t simply cut it off. Say something like “It’s been great talking with you.”  “I really enjoyed hearing about…” “I’d love to hear about it when we have another chance to talk.”  “It was nice chatting with  you… (catching up with you…) Or just  say: “Nice talking to you” and smile.

Here are two possible scenarios that suggest techniques for small talk.

1. Gloria arrives a few minutes early for an office meeting. Jayesh, a colleague she knows well is already in the room. 

Gloria:   Hi Jayesh, how are you?

Jayesh: Great thanks, and you?

Gloria:  Well, I’m well. And enjoying the golden fall (autumn) in New England.

Jayesh:  Fall is great.  But I am also looking forward to winter. I love skiing and snowboarding.

Gloria:  The meeting is about to begin. I’d love to hear about it when we have another chance to talk.

2. Jayesh arrives early for a departmental meeting. A colleague from another department that he does not know, is already sitting at the table.

Jayesh:   Hi I am Jayesh. Are you here for the meeting on…?

Peter: My name is Peter, nice to meet you. I am from the Los Angeles office.

Jayesh:  Is it OK if I sit here? 

Peter:  Of course.

Jayesh: How do you find Washington this time of year?

Peter: Very hot, it is hotter than LA (Los Angeles).

Jayesh:  Really? Amazing! Listen, I have a pool party today at my house. If you are free, would like to join us? 

Peter: Sure. Thank you.

Jayesh:  The meeting is about to begin. Let’s talk about it after the meeting.

Listed below are sample conversational  phrases and questions that you can use to start and maintain small talk before a meeting starts.

Can I sit here? Is it OK if I sit next to you?  Is this seat vacant?

Did you get to the presentation on…(related to the meeting)? What did you think?

How are things working out with your new manager? (new boss/new colleague)

Have you been involved in this project before? How is it going so far?

Have you travelled far? How do you find our city? our weather? Is it your first visit?

Which department do you work in?

Did you see/watch football (soccer, basketball) last night?

How was your holiday? 

How did you like Florida (New York)? 

Have you been to this part of the country before?  

Have you been here before?

Want to watch the video on this topic? Click here

 You may also like: Three Vital Tips for Building Confidence in Business Meetings  http://www.succeedinamerica.com/?p=1396 

tn[2] (2)**Dr. Nara Venditti is the owner of Succeed In America specializing in business communication skills for foreign-born professionals and cross-cultural communication in the workplace. She is passionate about helping non-native speakers of English succeed in the American workplace and educates on Business English and communication across language and cultural divides. She is  the author of numerous articles and books on the topics available on SucceedinAmerica  and  on  Amazon amazon-underground-app-us-black.