How to make chit chat count
How it can benefit you at work and in your social life
By Angela Civitella
What is “chit chat”? Maybe you think of it as a way to break the ice before engaging in a more serious and important discussion. Maybe it’s about talking about the weather in the office or in the elevator on a Monday morning. Or perhaps you just freeze when having to engage in it, and see it as difficult, artificial or trivial?
Chit chat comes easily to some people. They never seem short of things to say and can strike up a conversation in almost any situation. For other people, though, making small talk is something that eludes them. They can be in a room with people they are keen to speak to, but the words just refuse to come out.
If you struggle with this necessary tool, don’t worry – it’s a skill that you can learn. In this article, we explore how to undertake it, and how it can benefit you at work and in your social life. We also look at how not to engage in this when not appropriate.
What is the concept of chit chat?
Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski was the first person to study this practice, back in 1923. He described it as “purposeless expressions of preference or aversion, accounts of irrelevant happenings, (and) comments on what is perfectly obvious”. In other words, speaking for the sake of being approachable and open to people, rather than to communicate information.
… far from being shallow or superficial, it’s one of the most underrated of communication skills.
It can be all of these things. But far from being shallow or superficial, it’s one of the most underrated of communication skills. It is hugely important in many business cultures, and it can be a critical ingredient in both networking and your day-to-day life.
Why is it so important?
The importance of this activity in the workplace lies in the bonds it creates, rather than the actual words that are spoken.
Simply chatting with colleagues and clients can build good relationships, and making positive connections can win over potential customers. And it can build and strengthen your social connections.
‘The importance of this activity in the workplace lies in the bonds it creates, rather than the actual words that are spoken.’
Making a good first impression can get business meetings that start off cold to a great start. Knowing how to make small talk can help you achieve this by building rapport and trust with the people you’re talking to.
It can carry you beyond just making a good first impression, too. For example, a little small talk with a potential client could lead to more serious discussions about doing business together.
How to do it
Engaging in this might be something that you dread, or something that you’re comfortable with. Either way, it’s a skill that you can learn and improve upon. There are three steps to developing your ability to make small talk: be ready for it, start doing it, and do it again!
Be ready for it
Do some research on topical subjects that may be discussed at the next networking event or board meeting. When you stock up your arsenal, you automatically feel more confident and less intimidated to initiate a conversation as an opening to a bigger discussion. Here are a few things to consider:
Take the pressure off yourself: try to think positively. You’re just looking to make a good impression and create a connection with someone, not to score an instant sale.
Start small: practice casual greetings, compliments and smiles whenever you get the chance. Build up slowly by throwing in a question or two.
Get informed: nothing saps your confidence during small talk more than having nothing to say, so try to stay up to date with what people may be talking about. This can include news stories, local events, sports, and industry news.
‘Do some research on topical subjects that may be discussed at the next networking event or board meeting.’
Prepare an introduction: the most common question people ask is, “So, what do you do?” Respond with a brief but punchy reply that invites more questions. For example, say, “I train graduate sales recruits and help them to find their strengths”, rather than the dull, “I’m in sales”. Leaving people wanting to know more enables you to get your small talk off to a good start, and really connect with them.
Prepare some strong openers: here are a few questions you can ask to start a conversation:
“What do you love about your job/this event/this city?”
“What’s the most exciting thing that you’ve heard here today?”
“How did your last session go?“
“What’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?”
“Where did you last hear a presentation as interesting as that?”
You may consider rehearsing possible introductions or conversation starters before you arrive at an event. And you can think about picking up conversation points at the event itself. For example, you may hear something during a session that would make a good topic to talk about with your fellow attendees during a break.
Once you feel ready to take the plunge, you just need to start talking! You can initiate a conversation or join one that’s already underway.
So, how do you get started? Firstly, be alert for opportunities – listen for chances to connect with other people. For example, if you hear someone mention that he or she drives the same model of car as you, or supports the same hockey team, use that as a way into a conversation.
If you feel anxious or nervous, use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and centring to reduce stress. If you are relaxed, you’ll come across more naturally and confidently.
‘… be alert for opportunities – listen for chances to connect with other people.’
As your confidence and skills develop, start more conversations. You can then guide and sustain the conversation, rather than just participate in it. Voice coach Dr. Carol Fleming suggests the three-step A-R-E method* for reaching this point. A-R-E stands for anchor, reveal and encourage:
Anchor: make a brief observation about a shared experience to another person as the starting point of your small talk. This can be something as casual as, “What a beautiful day”, or, “The food here is amazing”.
Reveal: try to establish a connection with him. For example, saying, “The weather here last year was terrible”, or, “I’ve eaten at some great restaurants but this place comes out on top”, reveals something about yourself and gives him a chance to respond.
Encourage: ask a question to draw him in, such as, “Were you at the conference last year?” or, “How do you rate it?”
Your body language can impact the success of this as well. Adopt a posture and use gestures that show you’re approachable, open and happy to engage in conversation.
Finally, don’t spend too long with one person or group – you and they may want to speak with other people, too. Keep exchanges brief, then you can either end your conversation politely or excuse yourself from a group chat.
‘Adopt a posture and use gestures that show you’re approachable, open and happy to engage in conversation.’
When you disconnect from a conversation, do so in a way that doesn’t leave anyone feeling hurt or ignored, and that leaves the door open to speaking again. Waiting for a lull and then returning to the subject you opened with is a respectful and polite way to bring small talk to a close. For example, if you started by saying, “Where did you last hear a presentation as interesting as that?” you could close with, “The next speaker is on soon, let’s hope that he’s just as good”. Then use a positive exit line such as, “I must go and find a seat. It was really great talking to you. I hope we can chat again”. And take your leave with a smile and maybe a handshake.
Do It Again!
The more often you engage in this, the more natural you’ll find it becomes. Taking opportunities to talk with colleagues, friends, family, and even complete strangers will help you to strengthen your skills.
Avoiding chit chat pitfalls
In general it involves ‘light’ topics of conversation, and those conversations can be quite short. But there are still some subjects and behaviours that could trip you up. For example, don’t talk about yourself too much. As fascinating as you might think you are, don’t hog the conversation! Show an interest in the people you are talking to, and let them be part of the conversation.
You should steer clear of controversial or provocative subjects. Keep things friendly and light. It might be wise to avoid subjects such as religion or politics, in case you unintentionally cause offence.
‘If you’re working in a new or unfamiliar country, read up on its approach to chit chat and be aware of any potential differences on a cultural level.’
If you’re working in a new or unfamiliar country, read up on its approach to chit chat and be aware of any potential differences on a cultural level. For example, it’s an important part of business culture in the U.S., and the British are famously skilled at it, but Germans generally prefer getting straight to the point. In hierarchical societies, for example in Japan and India, engaging your superiors in small talk is deemed inappropriate.
So, size up your audience, determine if it is appropriate to chit chat, relax, breathe and extend yourself in a way that you will be remembered as someone to know.
* From It’s the Way You Say It: Becoming Articulate, Well-spoken, and Clear by Dr Carol Fleming © 2010.
Read also: Set yourself up to make the right decision
Angela Civitella, a certified management business coach with more than 20 years of proven ability as a negotiator, strategist, and problem-solver, creates sound and solid synergies with those in quest of improving their leadership and team building skills. You can reach Angela at 514 254-2400 • linkedin.com/in/angelacivitella/ • intinde.com • @intinde