Small talk is a type of social communication. It is an informal type of conversation, and is usually made between people who do not know each other well or at all.
The most common time for small talk to occur is the first time one person sees or meets another. In most English-speaking countries, it is natural and often necessary to make small talk in certain situations.
The word ‘small’ is misleading, as small talk is not ‘small’ in its importance. It serves a number of social communication purposes:
• To ‘break the ice’ and start a conversation between two people.
• To keep a conversation going and fill in gaps to avoid awkward and uncomfortable silences.
• To fill in time while waiting for something; for example, while standing in an elevator, in a line-up for a bus or to buy concert or movie tickets.
• To end a conversation in a non-abrupt manner.
• It allows two speakers to show each other they have friendly intentions.
• In business, small talk establishes one another’s reputation and level of expertise.
Some people make small talk in order to be polite.
If you’re at a party, even though you may not know anyone, it is rude to simply sit apart from everyone else. And if your host introduces you to someone, in order to show an interest in getting to know them better, you need to start a conversation.
At business meetings, you are expected to walk around and talk to a number of people you do not know: to ‘mingle’.
The need to make small talk also depends on the nature of the relationship between the people having the conversation.
For example, if you see a co-worker or a peer in the elevator or lunchroom for the first time, you might introduce yourself, say hello and comment on the weather or some current news event. The next time you see each other might be the right occasion to start a casual conversation, provided the other person smiles and acknowledges you.
Small talk often occurs between managers or supervisors and the staff who report to them in order to establish working relationships with each other.
For example, a manager might initiate a casual conversation during a break in a meeting or presentation when nothing important is happening.
Whether the conversation is “functional” – about a topic related to business (like a project deadline) – or not is influenced by the power relationship between the two speakers. The manager has the authority to end the small talk and ‘get down to business’.
What people make small talk about is closely related to their culture and, especially, their public and private ‘life space’. A person’s public life space is the part of his/her life they are willing to share with people they meet on a casual or short-term basis. A person’s private or personal life space is the part they wish to keep to themselves.
Peoples’ public and private life spaces differ widely depending on their culture; for example, many people from East Indian and Asian cultures have smaller ‘private’ life spaces than people in Canada. They are willing to share a lot more about their lives than Canadians with people they do not know well.
Conversation topics which are considered “safe” in Canada include:
• The weather (yesterday’s, today’s or tomorrow’s).
• Current events/news (provided the topic is not controversial such as laws concerning same-sex marriage).
• Sports and entertainment.
• Tourist attractions (Niagara Falls, the CN tower, etc.).
• A recent or upcoming holiday (or a long weekend).
• The present situation (waiting for an elevator, a bus, a concert, sitting in a doctor’s office, etc.).
• Compliments about a person’s clothing and hairstyle are also appropriate.
Topics not considered “safe” to make small talk about include:
• Marital status.
• Whether or not a person has any children and how many.
Making positive or negative comments about another person’s body, and making negative remarks about someone who is not involved in the conversation is not considered appropriate.
When making small talk, it is very important to respect the other speaker’s private life space and to recognize verbal and nonverbal cues when he/she wants to end the conversation. It is unwise to continue talking about an issue which the other person does not seem comfortable with or interested in.
It is impolite to interrupt two people engaged in conversation to discuss something unimportant like the weather.
In the workplace, small talk helps to define the relationships between acquaintances, co-workers and colleagues and the people to whom they report.
Small talk in and outside the workplace is closely related to people’s need to maintain ‘positive face’ and to feel approved by those who are listening to them.
Small talk can help a person to build a meaningful connection with someone else and is a very important skill that will benefit the individual in the professional world.
– Marjorie Friesen
• Since 2003 Marjorie Friesen has taught English language to adult immigrants and workplace English to internationally-educated professionals to help them advance in their careers and achieve their goals. For more info, visit www.improveyourworkplaceenglish.com.
Posted: Mar 2, 2015