“So how is everyone?” Paul asked. “Fine,” I responded. “Shana’s on a school trip this week.” “Oh, yes, school trips. My sons usually have four a year. Kelly and I chaperone…”
This recent conversation was not between me and a close friend, as you might be surmising but rather between me and my accountant. We rarely communicate besides on the phone and even then only several times a year. This necessitates the use of small talk, that discussion on relatively unimportant matters that not many people do well. “Small talk” is actually complex in its rules and practice and is something of an art form—a lost one, much like the art of conversation itself.
Why do we need small talk at all? Small talk is for those occasions when spending time with someone we don’t know well—a stranger at a party, a classmate outside an office—but we need to talk to the other person because ignoring him or her would be rude.
However, because he or she is a stranger or relatively so, we want to avoid potentially sensitive topics. Small talk is so widely practiced that being able to successfully conduct a conversation in small talk is necessary for social success, including that of our ESL students.
Topics to Avoid for Small Talk
The United States is a diverse nation, including in religion—so much so that it is written in our Constitution that state business is separate from religious because of the potential for conflict if one majority religious group gained control within the government. Likewise, religion is a topic avoided in most public settings especially with relative strangers because of the potential for conflict at worst or discomfort at least.
Politics is another volatile topic, like religion, for similar reasons—people tend to have deeply-felt or strong opinions on these topics and the potential for conflict is great if two people disagree. There are, of course, some minor topics on which most people can agree—like presidential candidate’s bad haircut or poor control of the English language, despite being a native speaker. Other than these light topics, politics should be avoided in small talk.
Sex and Other Personal Information
“TMI” is an idiom in current use in the U.S., an acronym for “too much information.” One goal of small talk is to avoid making the listener uncomfortable. Some topics, like the sex life or health of the speaker, are too personal for small talk.
Acceptable Topics for Small Talk
So there are a lot of topics that are not suitable for small talk, mostly because of their sensitivity. So what is some suitable material?
A conversation on the weather sounds boring, right? Not really—I just had an online conversation in which the participants spent a few minutes discussing the weather conditions in our different parts of the world—from the pouring rain in New Zealand to the dangerously hot and dry California. And since everyone experiences weather and nobody has control of it, everyone could contribute to the topic, say something interesting, and not get angry at someone else—the Californians could hardly blame the New Zealanders for having more water.
Sports are, like weather, a relatively “safe” or neutral topic, particularly if the conversation participants are from the same locale—in all likelihood they support the same team and can spend a few moments congratulating or commiserating with each other on their team’s progress, or lack thereof. Even people who support competing teams rarely become hostile in their opposing interests, and competitive remarks tend to remain good-natured. ESL students frequently can contribute to these conversations with their stronger knowledge of sports like soccer, as it’s called in the U.S., and football elsewhere.
Current, non Controversial Events
There are those current events which are virtually free of controversy: most will agree on the humanity of the billionaire giving away another million to charity or the horror of a mass shooting. Part of the reason people discuss these topics publicly is that we are momentarily bonded with each other in agreeing upon the event.
The Practice of Small Topic
Test the Waters
People begin “So how about those Giants?” to find out if the other party is interested and can contribute to the conversation. Small talk is a dialogue, not a monologue.
Engage in the Topic
Even though you may be discussing the weather, engage in it enough to keep the other party interested. Add your personal experience and “take” on the topic. Almost any topic can be interesting if the parties engage. And almost any topic is boring if they don’t.
Know When to Break it off
There will come a point when you’ve said all that you can say about the weather, the other party seems bored, or that time demands you move on to the main point of your call or visit.
Take it to the Next Level
Sometimes instead of breaking off the small talk, the parties involved find they have enough common interests to move beyond the small talk phase and into more serious discussion. That is fine and one of the points of small talk, to find out if there is enough common interest to move beyond small talk.
Show Your Personality
Even if it is only in a small way, the person you have engaged with for this short period of time should be left feeling as if they have spoken with an actual person with something real to say, even if it’s only about the weather. Someone I was speaking to recently in a social situation, for example, told me the weather and terrain of my city, Sacramento, California, reminded her in some ways of her native Pakistan. That’s an original observation I won’t forget soon, and I’ll remember that conversation and person who said that.
So does small talk have to be bland? Absolutely not.
Despite its negative reputation as boring and repetitive (“Hot enough for ya?”), small talk does not have to be bland. It is an art form, and at its best puts others at ease, leaves them with an interesting insight, and paves the way to a deeper relationship—or at least the next stage of this particular interaction.