How You Make Small Talk – American Style


Do you find it difficult to engage in informal conversation or small talk with people at work or during social events?

Do you want to challenge yourself and learn how to comfortably make small talk with others?

Making small talk is a significant skill not only in relationship-building but also in advancing your career.

Being competent in small talk is critical for securing a job in the first place. It helps you create rapport with potential employers. In the employment interview, small talk is usually the light-hearted conversation that precedes the "serious" part of the interview.

You need to demonstrate that you can relate to others in a friendly fashion.

As you already know, it is important to build relationships with colleagues at work to get things done. Colleagues are more willing to help you if you are on friendly terms with them. So you need to mingle with them during coffee breaks, lunch, and company-sponsored activities.

Through small talk, you can develop important alliances. You can also obtain information not available through formal channels about your company, its culture, and how things work informally.

So small talk plays a key role in many aspects of business relationships. And, like most skills, making small talk can be learned.

In this discussion, you learn the basic rules for making small talk – American style. We also present a step-by-step guide to making small talk.

What are the Rules and Skills for Making Small Talk?

When American-born colleagues try to engage you in conversation, they expect you to actively keep up your part. They don't want respectful silence or short responses that lead nowhere.

They want you to ask questions and make comments that broaden the exchange and keep it going for a few minutes.

Your American-born colleagues become uncomfortable if they do most of the small talk. If they have to make a big effort to get you to speak, they may just end the conversation instead and not try again in the future.

So what are the skills you need for small talk? You need to know:

  • How to open a conversation

  • How to ask exploratory questions to continue the conversation

  • What topics to focus on

  • How to take turns

  • How to gracefully end the conversation.

Here are four steps to help you.

Step One: Open a Conversation

Begin by making comments on a topic of common interest. Weather, food, sports, and the occasion for getting together are good topics.

At work, you can ask, "How do you like the rain we've been getting?" "Wasn't that an exciting Warriors game last night?" "Did you feel the earthquake this morning?"

At a gathering, you can say, "How do you know the host?" or "What brings you to this event?"

The purpose of this step is to let the other person know that you are willing to talk. Do keep everything on the positive side. Don't complain or bring up a controversial topic.

Step Two: Introduce Yourself

Clearly and maybe slowly enunciate your name, if it can be challenging to others or find a standard way to explain your name.

For example, one Chinese engineer we know, King Ming Young, introduces herself humorously as: "King, the opposite of queen; Ming, as in Ming Dynasty; and Young, the opposite of old."

Then say something about what you do for a living or what part of the company you work in. It's good to add an interesting fact about yourself or your job.

For example, you can say, "I have worked in sales for the past 5 years and just got back from a trip to India." This provides a topic for the other person to relate to. They can follow your lead by asking a question about India or mentioning their own recent overseas experience.

Step Three: Expand the Scope of the Conversation

In this step, you take turns expanding the scope of the conversation by bringing up related topics. If the other person mentions their own trip, for example, ask them: "What stood out for you?" or "What was the most unusual experience you had?"

Be sure to ask open-ended questions, ones that can't be answered by a single word. For example, don't ask: "Did you like it?" Instead, ask: "How did you like it?"

After you discuss the other person's trip, you can mention that you visited Vietnam last summer and you can make a few comments that might relate to the other person's experience.

This give-and-take dynamic makes conversations interesting and keeps them going.

Step Four: End the Conversation

Let the other person know that you will be leaving soon and that you have enjoyed talking with them.

You can also set the stage for future conversations. For example, you can say, "It was great chatting with you. I appreciated the comments about your trip. I hope we have a chance to talk again soon."

Summary: Practicing Small Talk – American Style

It's important not to mimic the style of native-born speakers, which might make you feel inauthentic and awkward.

Instead, try these additional suggestions to help you further develop your skill at making small talk – American style.

  • When you are in the cafeteria, listen to others make small talk.

  • Pay attention to how they open, expand, and end the conversation.

  • Develop your own approach to engaging in American style small talk. What topics are comfortable for you to discuss? What questions come easily to you? What can you say about yourself that feels okay?

Developing your own style will help you feel comfortable, competent, and authentic.

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