Let’s talk about small talk.
If you’re the kind of person who starts sweating, as soon as the Zoom call starts and not everyone has joined just yet, and you need to make a little bit of a conversation and that stresses you out. “So, Jane, my manager, will join us in a sec. Okay?” Or if you are at an event, and the moment they give you a break, you run outside to buy coffee, trying not to bump into anyone so you wouldn’t have to talk to them. Then this, my friend, is for you.
Before you even begin let me know in the comments below, how do you feel about small talk? So, let’s use a scale. Put a number between 1 to 10 in the comments, where 1 is ‘I hate small talk. It’s horrible. It’s a horrible experience for me’. And 10 is ‘I’m a small talk master. Yeah, baby!’ So, let me know, put your number down, and let’s get started with the video.
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Now, why is small talk so freaking scary? As a speaker of English as a second language, you probably experience some sort of self-judgment anyway when speaking English, and that has to do with the fact that you simply don’t feel like you can express yourself in English the same way you can express yourself in your native language.
And you feel that gap when communicating with people, especially with new people. When there is this new interaction with another human being, we are afraid of being judged and we want to be okay. And sometimes you don’t know exactly what to say and how to interact, and we’re afraid of those silent moments. And we’re afraid of making mistakes, and that people are not going to get who we are because we wouldn’t be able to express ourselves fully because of English.
Now, even native speakers, or even small talk in your native language might be intimidating. So, I believe that it’s that initial interaction that we know is important and we have to do it, but we don’t know exactly how to do it successfully, especially if you’re an introvert and all you want to do is just speak to your computer. “I just felt so incredibly alone. You were right there next to me. And you didn’t say a word. Nothing!”
Also, in American English and American culture, small talk is really valued. And for people who don’t share the same cultural values, it might seem a little weird to talk about the weather or the commute when we’re here to talk about something else. And if you don’t share the same culture, small talk might come across as a burden. Not necessarily because of English, but because you don’t see the point in it.
So when we want to talk about small talk and how to become better at small talk, it’s important to discuss it within the cultural context. In American culture, small talk, which is this informal back and forth conversation about something that is not related to anything specific, especially if you’re about to start a meeting, so it’s not related to the content of the meeting, is really important to establish trust and to start building a relationship. And this is why it is important to understand how to manage it and how to master it even if you don’t passionately feel that it’s important for connection and communication.
Now, if you are afraid speaking English, then let me tell you this. When you interact with someone, be it a native speaker or a non-native speaker, people are usually not obsessed or they usually don’t pay attention with what you say. Especially when you’re first meeting with them and you’re having this initial interaction. Because people want to have a healthy conversation and usually, what they’re concerned about is themselves. So, usually, what goes inside a person’s head is not. “Ooh, they used ‘have worked’ instead of ‘worked’, but “Okay. So what can I answer her or him so the conversation will keep on flowing and rolling?”
Now, if you want to become more successful at small talk, then here are a few tips that are definitely going to help you do that as of this moment. The one thing that has incredibly helped me overcome my fear of small talk was to make it about the other person. This is the best advice that I can give you. It is not about you. Again, it is not about your mistakes, it is not about your English, it is not about how smart you are. It is about the other person.
And the one value that will keep you in the right direction is curiosity. Be genuinely curious about the other person. A lot of times people think that ‘Ooh, small talk is so superficial and artificial’. Not, if you make it about them, and not if you’re genuinely curious about the other person. And in a second, I’m going to give you a few tips on how exactly to do that, and a few very technical, simple tips that you are going to love. I guarantee.
So first of all, when you make it about the other person, you have less self-judgment, which is very freeing. And when you have less self-judgment than your more fluent. Because judgment takes up a lot of space in our head. And that prevents the words from becoming available and clear. And everything is less smooth and more stuck, which we don’t want. So let go of self-judgment, make it about them.
Also, approach the other person with respect, respect for their privacy. So no weird questions like “How much do you make?” or “How much rent do you pay here?” Or “Do you have any kids?” And yes, when people come from a culture where family is one of the cultural values, it sounds strange not to talk about family or, or children.
But in some cultures it is less appropriate. People are more personal, individual, and they don’t want to talk about whether or not they have kids, and maybe justify their choice whether or not to have kids at all. Right? This is not a good topic or a great situation to be in when you are just introduced to someone.
And also, I would avoid controversial topics: religion, politics, sex. Like, keep it for later, okay? I’m all about talking about controversial topics, especially politics, but not at the beginning. Because you don’t know who the other person is, you don’t know they might get offended by something that you may say. So you want to be respectful of their privacy and have their freedom to lead the conversation.
Now, let’s get practical with a few tips on what you can do to make your conversation very, very successful. First, be the leader of the conversation rather than the follower. When you lead the conversation, you have more confidence and your entire goal is to get the other person to talk. Again, making it about them.
And how do you do that? By asking simple questions that have an open answer. So try to avoid yes/no questions. “Was your flight here okay? – Aha. – Great”. But instead, ask open questions that are simple. “So is this your first time here? – No, actually I’ve been here before.”
And then you have an opportunity to ask a follow-up question. You get an answer that is more than just yes or no. And then you ask something, you take one word or an idea that was presented in the answer, and you ask a question about that. “Oh, cool! And how do you like it? – I love it. I mean, the beaches here are beautiful”.
Again, an opportunity to take the answer and turn it into a question. “Oh, really? See I haven’t been to the beaches here just yet. Which one’s your favorite?” So I’m responding and coming up with a follow-up question.
Now, if you get asked a question, even if you get asked a yes/no question, and that is because they haven’t watched my video, then you might want to elaborate a little more. For example: “Was your flight here okay? – Yeah, actually it was pretty good. I mean, they haven’t lost my luggage, which is what they did last time. So, I think it was okay.” Right?
So, even if you get asked a question that you can answer with a simple yes or no, try to make it interesting and turn it into another conversation topic. If the person in front of you is sensitive, they will take what you said and continue the conversation, asking a question about that.
One more trick that I’m going to share with you is something that I’ve learned from Chris Voss, from his masterclass ‘Teaching the art of negotiation’. Now, he talks about it in the context of negotiation, but I find it exceptionally useful when used in small talk.
The first thing is mirroring. Mirroring is basically the act of you taking the last part of what the other person has just said and repeating it in a form of a question.
For example. “So is this your first time here? – No, actually I’ve been here before. – You’ve been here before?” See what I did? I took the last part and turned it into a question. “Yeah, I was at another conference about three years ago. – Another conference? – Yeah. It was a conference for female football fans. And we discussed the misogyny that women experience in the industry. – In the industry?”
Well, you see where this is going. So the cool thing about it is that the other person usually doesn’t notice it because it’s part of the conversation. So you didn’t have to come up with anything here. You didn’t have to think of new words or what questions to ask. You simply take the last part and turn them into a question. The other person is going to think that you’re super interesting, compassionate, and they’re going to want to keep on talking to you.
Another thing that Chris Voss discusses is labeling. Labeling is naming an emotion that someone in front of you is experiencing. And the reason why he says it’s important to do that is because when you label a negative emotion, it automatically reduces the levels of stress simply by naming the emotion that the other person is experiencing.
Now, to label an emotion is basically to say “It seems to me that you’re very upset.” “It feels like you’re really frustrated”. He is not suggesting that you should say something like “You are frustrated” or “You are upset” or “You are angry”, but the way you experience it: “it seems to me…”, “it feels that…” Okay.
Now, instead of labeling an emotion, cause this was probably something that you wouldn’t want to do in a conversation. ” Oh my God. I love how sunny it is. – It seems to me that the sun triggers some negative emotions, maybe something that had to do with your childhood…”
Unless it’s a positive emotion: “you seem very happy to be here”. Right? But you could say something about the other person. For example, going back to the original conversation. “So is this your first time here? – No, actually, I’ve been here before. – Oh, cool. And how do you like it? – I love it. I mean, the beaches here are beautiful. – Oh, really? See I haven’t been to the beaches here just yet. Which one’s your favorite? – You got to go check out the Southern shore. I mean, it is so beautiful, and usually there is no one there. – Okay, maybe I’ll check it out. It seems to me like you’re a summer person”.
So I put a label on this person’s experience. Now, whether I’m right or not, it doesn’t really matter. As long as they keep it positive and fun, it will encourage the other person to speak a little bit more and to get into the conversation. Whether it would be, “I’m a totally summer person. I mean, for me, vacation is lying on the beach, drinking margaritas”. Or “No, no, no, no, no. I’m a winter person. I mean, I was born in Alaska, right. For me, snow is life.” Again, a trigger to continue the conversation.
Okay. That’s it for today. I mean, there’s plenty more we can talk about, but for now I think that is more than enough for you to get started and start having these awesome conversations out there.
Now, I have two questions for you and I’d love for you to answer them in the comments so we can start a conversation. The first is, what has helped you so far in small talk and informal conversations? If you had to overcome a challenge, share it with us, and share with us what has helped you. And the second one, what is one thing that you’re going to take from this conversation and put it to use as of today?
If you liked this video, and you’d like to learn more and understand how you too can become confident and clear when speaking English, I invite you to come on over to my website because it has a lot of great resources for you for free that you can put to use. It’s very practical and it will help you get results immediately. Also, come on over to Instagram because that’s where I get more personal and share with you stuff that I only share there.
Have a beautiful, beautiful week, and I will see you next week in the next video. Bye.