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Meetings in English are fine but the coffee breaks are terrifying

Martin, an IT Project Manager, was getting ready for a meeting with his European counterparts to review his bank’s IT security. As ever he was very well prepared so I was a little surprised when he confessed to being nervous. However, it was not the meeting itself that was worrying him – it was the coffee and lunch breaks. His nerves were due to having to “small talk”. Small talk is an essential element of building relationships.  Yes, the meeting is all about dealing with business and discussing the items on the agenda but it’s in the breaks in between where the relationships are forged.
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Why do some people find small talk so hard?

When we run seminars on small talk and socializing in English we hear many reasons why people struggle when they have to make small talk. Some people don’t know what to say, some are afraid of saying the wrong thing, some don’t know how to start a conversation, some are scared that people will think they are boring, some people find small talk a waste of time…and the list goes on. All of these objections, and fears are magnified when we know we are going to have to do it in a foreign language.

You prepare for the meeting so prepare for the small talk!

If you are nervous or uncertain about what to say during the breaks – prepare for them. First of all identify topics that are safe and suitable for the event and the people attending.  Depending upon the culture you are speaking with “safe topics” may be different but in general you are on safe ground with the following:

  • The weather – The forecast says it’s going to rain for the next 2 days. What’s the weather like at this time of year in Cape Town?
  • The event itself – I particularly enjoyed this morning’s presentation on big data analytics. What did you think of it?
  • The venue – This is one of the best conference centres I’ve been to. What do you think of it?
  • Jobs – How long have you been working in data security?
  • Current affairs, but NOT politics – I see they’ve just started the latest trials on driverless cars. I’m not sure I’d want to travel in one. How do you feel about them?

Opening a conversations and keeping it flowing

If you are going to ask questions, when possible, ask open questions. An open question begins with a question word – what, why, where, when, how etc. and the person will have to answer with more than a simple yes/no answer. Open question elicits more information and helps the conversation to develop. Similarly if you are asked a question (closed or open), give additional information and finish with a question. This will keep the conversation flowing.

7 phrases for typical small talk situations

  • Hi, I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m Helena Weber from IT support in Ludwigsburg.
  • I’m ready for a cup of coffee. Can I pour you one?
  • I believe the restaurant here is excellent. Have you eaten here before?
  • What did you do before you joined the product management team?
  • Where are you from?
  • Did you see the story on the news about…?
  • It’s a while since I last saw you. What’s new?

Don’t forget

Your counterparts may well be as nervous as you are and will welcome your initiative in starting and joining in conversation with them.  You could be taking the first steps in developing new personal and business relationships

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