How to master the art of small talk
Dec 01, 2019
We’ve all had that small moment of panic in the lift with Karen from finance. She looks at you, you look at her, you know that neither of you has anything interesting to say to one another but the silence has become oppressive. You have to find something to say quickly.
“The weather has been pretty mild for November, don’t you think?”
Karen is as relieved as you and answers, “Yes, it is. We’ve had a nice late autumn this year. Thanks, global warming.”
If small talk helps us fill the silence or get on with pensioners in the queue at the post office, it’s also a useful skill for our professional lives. The weather, transport problems, your last holiday… be sure to have plenty of ammunition at the ready for any situation.
Since time began, humanity has… made small talk
In his 1923 essay, The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages, the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski wrote about “purposeless expressions, accounts of irrelevant events and comments on the perfectly obvious”, which made him the first to describe what is now called “small talk” and reveal its role in social relationships.
In the 1970s, sociolinguists became interested in these forms of discourse that made up our everyday language and represented a fundamental part of verbal communication. Since then, research has confirmed the importance of these informal exchanges. They’re a sort of ritual that helps you to feel comfortable before you enter in a serious conversation or a lasting friendship.
So no, nobody is expecting to kick off a passionate debate by bringing up the film they watched last night or the weather last weekend. The important thing is not the subject, but the act of conversing.
Is making small talk necessary at work?
Whether you like it or not, small talk is a social lubricant, even in the workplace. Those moments spent chatting by the water cooler or before a meeting all play a crucial role in professional success. They allow you to find your place in a new company more easily, expand your network or simply create a more relaxed atmosphere before a meeting.
Small talk topics to break the ice with your colleagues
In order to move away from endless chats about the weather—which serve only to break the silence and do no favours in showcasing your intelligence—what subjects should you tackle?
- “Did you see… the latest England match / Ken Loach film?”
Indeed, most people enjoy speaking about their lives and giving their advice. Giving them the chance to do so is the best way to have a successful conversation.
- “I’ve heard that… the scones in the cafe opposite the office are delicious / a new gym has opened nearby. Have you tried it out?”
Talking about your surroundings is a way to find the best deals, but most importantly it will focus on your colleagues’ opinions and advice. You should ideally steer the question towards a subject that interests the person you’re speaking to: the local creche with new parents, the happy hour hot spots with party animals or the best restaurants with foodies.
- “Do you think that one day we should…send volunteers to Mars / stop using aeroplanes?”
Without getting into controversial topics —think politics, religion or sexuality—don’t be afraid of bringing up substantive matters. Studies have shown that people prefer to have weighty, constructive discussions. Meaningful conversations lead to happiness and creates stronger bonds with those around you.
Small talk can remain a banal exchange to fill an embarrassing silence in the lift or it can be used as a powerful tool to break the ice with someone, understand them better, put them at ease and build the foundation for a lasting relationship. Give it a go!
Translated by Kalin Linsberg
Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook on LinkedIn and on Instagram and subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest articles every day!
More inspiration: Working with colleagues
How to survive when your company is acquired
Mergers, acquisitions, and company sales can be an exciting new start for a company. But how do staffers best prepare for the upheaval that follows?
Dec 15, 2022
How to deal with a colleague who has issues
We might have the best intentions when trying to support a colleague who is unwell, but it's often better to leave it to professionals.
Sep 28, 2022
Work bestie vs work partner: do you need both?
Is it wise to mix friendship and work? We spoke to 5 women about how to best navigate relations in the workplace
Sep 21, 2022
Are you guilty of these microaggressions?
Microaggressions are often good intentions gone awry. Here's how to make sure your unconscious biases don't harm your coworkers.
Jul 18, 2022
Watch your words: How to master the language of work
Ever just wanted to say everything that was on your mind? Well, you probably shouldn't. Learn what to say instead, for the sake of your career.
Jul 13, 2022
The newsletter that does the job
Want to keep up with the latest articles? Twice a week you can receive stories, jobs, and tips in your inbox.
Looking for your next job opportunity ?
More than 200,000 candidates have found a job with Welcome to the JungleExplore jobs