Communication 101

Small Talk: What Is It and When Is It Appropriate?

Small Talk Explained

Small talk is considered polite and casual conversation, also known as “chit chat” in social interactions or professional environments with co-workers. It allows people who may or may not know each other well to converse lightly and make everyone feel comfortable getting to know one another. Small talk topics are an excellent foundation for conversation starters. 

Learning the art of small talk can help you build and improve active listening and social skills. However, sometimes small talk can induce anxiety in people, especially introverts.

A great way to alleviate anxiousness in social situations would be to know what topics or open-ended questions are good conversation starters. This helps you prepare for instances where you might meet new people, such as social events. 

Believe it or not, the key component to effective small talk is based on non-verbal communication or cues, including body language, tone of voice, rate of speech, or emotional mood. Our brains process large amounts of information when we engage in conversation. 

Small talk can be controversial, but it's a useful tool for many reasons. It is a natural occurrence in scenarios like an exchange between new people getting to know each other, acquaintances having a light-hearted conversation, or spontaneous discussions between coworkers.

Read about what small talk is, small talk topics to keep in mind, and when it is appropriate to use it.

Small Talk Isn’t “Deep”

Small talk is often the precursor to deeper conversation. It allows everyone to learn basic information about each other before diving into more involved topics. In addition, since some people can be shy, it creates a friendly environment by removing controversial subjects, making others feel safe to communicate casually.

Small talk is critical in situations like company or networking events, trade shows, conferences, parties, and more. You will inevitably meet new people. In these instances, you would not immediately jump into a deep conversation.

Instead, having casual, small talk would be the most appropriate way to break the ice, have discussions about common interests and possibly begin a new personal or professional relationship.

You also might engage in small talk in a quick, passing conversation with a stranger in an elevator, a cashier at the grocery store, or with your coworkers on slack or before a Zoom meeting starts. 

Small Talk Is Universal

Because small talk is universal, it allows you to engage with other people from different backgrounds and cultures.

Small talk is where people from all walks of life can find common ground in conversation, such as asking how their day is going or exchanging commentary about the weather, local cuisine, or sports. 

Small Talk Is Pleasant

Small talk creates a pleasant atmosphere and exchange between people because it keeps the conversation focused on neutral topics. To add positive energy to a conversation or perhaps break an awkward silence, you can compliment someone on their unique outfit and even ask them where they got it. 

Engaging in small talk is pleasant because it encourages positive social interactions and makes people feel seen and heard when you inquire to know more about them, how they are doing, and their general well-being. It creates the opportunity for new connections to turn into long-term relationships.

As previously mentioned, small talk is not just about what you say but how you say it. Engaging with people while smiling, making eye contact, and using a warm tone of voice will create a pleasant conversational dynamic.

Small Talk Is Casual

Small talk keeps the conversation casual, creating a safe environment for people to engage because the topics typically don’t require as much brainpower or involve controversy. It allows for a safe, non-threatening environment to develop trust and find common ground, especially among strangers. 

Is Small Talk Good or Bad?

Some people theorize that small talk lacks authenticity because it isn’t a deep conversation, or it can feel awkward or forced. Yet, with the proper context and intention, small talk can be a beneficial social tool in various social situations. To reframe the negative connotation around small talk, one could consider it a “conversation warmup.”

Many people have a newfound appreciation for casual conversation in a post-pandemic world where isolation and social distancing have become the norm. All in all, small talk can be good when used the right way. And conversely, the opposite is also true.

Small Talk Topics

Weather

Talking about the weather could seem dull or surface level, but it can still be a great way to open dialogue with a conversation partner. Consider asking questions like: “Lovely day, isn’t it?”

Additional examples could be “Looks like we might have rain in the forecast, so we better get our umbrellas” or “Did you hear we might get a snowstorm this weekend?” You may have provided a tip to someone previously unaware of severe weather conditions in some instances.

Entertainment

Many people find common ground talking about their favorite Netflix show, a recent movie they saw, a book they read, or their favorite band when it comes to arts and entertainment. Example conversation starters could include asking about a favorite podcast, app, or book recommendations.

Food

Food is another neutral topic that could be a great conversation starter. For example, you could ask someone if they have been to the new restaurant that just opened down the street, ask for a recipe or meal suggestions, or what their favorite dish to cook at home is.

Other small talk topics to consider are sports, work, family, and travel. When intentionally sharpening your social skills for small talk, always focus on keeping it positive. 

Certain current events are not ideal. It is also good to avoid controversial or personal topics such as money or finances, politics, religion, death, sex, appearance, health, gossip, and offensive jokes. Try not to complain incessantly, share too much personal information, or have a pessimistic point of view.

When Is Small Talk Appropriate?

Small Talk Before Video Calls

Whether it’s a team meeting or an online group course, often, attendees trickle into the online meeting, or the host needs a few minutes to get started. In this case, it would be appropriate to start talking and ask others in the group how they have been or what they did over the weekend. 

Since video calls don’t have the same impact as in-person conversations, you can make it a point to look directly at the camera, smile, and use a positive tone of voice to connect with others virtually. Doing so sets the tone and mood for a productive video call.

Small Talk With Coworkers

Depending on the company's size, you might often experience meeting new or different people. Small talk is an excellent way to break the ice, get to know others gradually, develop trust and foster good working relationships. 

Never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement or complimenting a coworker on a job well done. You can leverage small talk to let others know they are seen and heard, creating an environment for safe and open discussion that can segue into deeper conversations.

Small Talk With New People

Small talk is almost always a requirement in situations where you meet people for the first time. These conversations should come naturally to most people. Then, you could ask deeper follow-up questions based on their answers, letting the other person know you are genuinely interested in learning more about them.

When Is It Time To Go Deeper?

You can ask most small talk questions in five to ten minutes. As previously mentioned, a large part of social communication is in non-verbal cues, so it is good to pay attention to how the other person responds in their body language, voice tone, etc. 

You can develop the art of small talk by asking compelling questions. Rather than asking common questions, try to establish a unique spin on them.

For example, if you're from where you're from, you could ask: “Where did you grow up?” Or “What was your hometown?” People love to talk about themselves and share knowledge, so asking for their opinion, advice, or point of view on a small talk topic would be helpful.

No Such Thing As Unimportant Things

There is a common misconception that small talk can feel awkward or unnecessary. The bottom line is that it can be a valuable technique to improve your emotional intelligence and active listening skills while creating a comfortable environment, whether you’re breaking the ice at a networking event or meeting a new team member at your company.

With a bit of preparation and practice, you can come up with some meaningful questions or conversation sparks to stand out and engage with others in a more meaningful way.

Sources:

Why Small Talk is Anything but Small | Forbes

Small Talk: The Best and Worst Things to Talk About | VeryWell Mind

Research once suggested small talk makes us unhappy — here's why that's not true | Business Insider

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