How to master the art of small talk

  • December 1, 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

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Marlène Moreira

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