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Why small talk is never a waste of time in America

I used to work for a large German logistics company as an in-house Business English trainer. Every morning I walked into the building and I would greet the security guard. Many of my German colleagues did this too. Not everyone learned his name though. I began to exchange daily pleasantries, talk about the weather, the weekends and would ask about his holiday when he returned back to work. Some of my German colleagues thought this behaviour was bizarre. They were surprised when I invited him to my office to share a piece of my birthday cake.

Small talk is never ‘small’

From my side I never understood why this was seen as unusual. To me, I was fostering a relationship that would make my working life easier. I know that might sound a little “mercenary” but my intentions were good. When I would occasionally forget my company identification card at home, the security guard never gave me a hard time or made me fill out the paperwork to obtain a temporary day pass (and this, of course, was not the case for other colleagues). As an American, small talk is never ‘small.’ In fact it plays quite a big role in building business relationships. It’s important, meaningful and significant.

Why is small talk so difficult?

I know that many of my clients find making small talk in English one of the most difficult things to do. My participants have told me that they are worried about saying the wrong thing, or that they don’t have the right words. I’m learning German myself, and I fully understand these problems.

However, I’ve also had German colleagues tell me that they feel small talk is unnecessary. Some have even told me it’s a waste of time – there’s time for fun when the work is done. Culturally, I find it harder to share these views.

Americans use small talk as a business tool

Many Americans approach small talk as an invaluable use of time because it can build and create new contacts and develop stronger relationships. We often don’t realize how many decisions we make based on gut feeling. And this is why small talk is so critical in America. The small talk before the job interview, at the corporate event or in the elevator with the boss can be very powerful at making a memorable impression. The person might not remember what you said but they will remember the impression you made – how you made them feel.

Of course small talk is not the sole determiner of success in American business. You must also perform the duties of your job with high quality. However, interpersonal relationships are significant in a work culture that does not have the legal safeguards often found in Germany.

3 things to keep in mind when developing your small talk skills

 “There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation.”— James Nathan Miller

The goal of small talk is not to make an overnight connection

Think of small talk as planting a seed in the garden. Making small talk once is not enough. You need to cultivate the relationship over time.

Listen and listen more

A brilliant way to strengthen a new relationship is to truly listen to the person and learn what is important to them. Once you understand what makes them tick, small talk will be much easier. Open questions are key.

It’s not all about what you can do for me

Don’t treat small talk as a one-way street. If you’re only thinking about what you can gain from the relationship, the small talk will come across as insincere and unauthentic. Small talk is not ‘how is this person going to help me?’ Small talk is about nurturing a genuine business relationship. So consider, ‘what can I offer’ or ‘how can I help?’ Additionally, the relationship will feel more personally fulfilling when you are able to give more than you take.

If you want to know more…

Then these links might be of interest to you:

And if you have another minute, let us know what problems you face when trying to make small talk in English.

4 replies
  1. Will
    Will says:

    In my experience, small talk can be one of the most difficult areas of spoken English for non-natives. I was reporting back to a manager of a department at a German blue chip recently, when he told me about one of his young high-potential team members, whose main problem in English is building rapport at the start of a meeting she has with American colleagues. The issues for her often also continue throughout the whole meeting. Now I am working with her to build her skills in the area of small talk and developing rapport. Her manager will be looking to see if she’s implemented her learning in team meetings. This demonstrates Target’s DMAIC concept. See for more details.

  2. Victoria Dale
    Victoria Dale says:

    Lindsay I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your observations about small talk in the workplace. I would only add that I feel small talk is essential when you start a job. Talking on an informal basis to those around you at work shows a willingness to fit in. Additionally, you can learn so much about people outside of formal business interactions – and this information can be invaluable when negotiating daily work challenges.

  3. Jennie Wright
    Jennie Wright says:

    This is completely true Lindsay! I do the same with my cleaners – lots of small talk and treat everyone equally.

    I think the planting the seed idea is great and a good way to show some cultures how networking works in other cultures. A quick chat about the weather when you know the other person does not really care can be more destructive than helpful when making international contacts.

  4. James
    James says:

    Very nice Lindsay and very important! Sometimes I get the feeling that the problem is in judgments about impression management in business in a culture where evidence is so highly valued. One important question to expand the view can be “How do we develop trust?” The “Me too” moments we uncover through small talk go a long way in being more than just our titles and roles for others and vice versa.

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