Different cultures treat workplace communication differently. Many people working in the United States for the first time may be shocked at the casual nature of conversations between colleagues and their superiors. In the United States personalities really come out (ever heard the phrase let your freak flag fly?), and while a subservient attitude toward the boss in all situations may be a norm in a native country, that is simply not the case here.
Small talk is a crucial aspect of communication. The brief conversation you have every morning with your colleagues in the hall as you make your way to your desk may not seem to matter much, but it does. If you learn the hidden meaning of small talk in US corporate culture, you can use it to your benefit.
Pro tip #1: Remember personal details that your coworkers mention in small talk (such as names of family members, pets, hobbies), and ask about them later.
Small talk is a good way to form a personal connection with each of your colleagues, no matter what level they may inhabit in your organization. This personal connection will affect how they interact with you on more professional matters, and will impact their attitude toward working with you. That is why it is important to make a good impression – and to maintain that good impression – through small talk.
Pro tip #2: Show others you are interested in what they have to say. You can do this by making a comment on what they have said and encouraging them to keep talking such as, “I didn’t know that, can you tell me more?”
Another function of small talk is to set the stage for future interactions. For example, as members of your team and a few other departments are arriving in the conference room a few minutes before a Monday meeting, the group may engage in light conversation about what they did over the weekend. This conversation, while seemingly unrelated to the meeting that is about to occur, sets the mood. This conversation helps everyone there to relax and to open up so that when the meeting does begin and the conversation turns to more important matters, everyone there will feel good about participating, and will be more willing to share their ideas in an open discussion.
Pro tip #3: During small talk, stay calm. To maintain an overall positive attitude in the group, do not interrupt others, even if you really want to. Let them finish what they are saying before jumping in. (This is a good rule of thumb for any interaction.)
It is not uncommon for small talk with the boss to be on a more personal level. In other countries, it might be unthinkable to discuss relationships outside of work, activities done in your free time, and current events, but in the United States, these topics are fair game. It is certainly not recommended to be open about everything; every company is different.
Pro tip #4: Observe others in your company engaging in small talk and use their conversations to guide you.
The best way to figure out what is appropriate is to listen carefully to topics that others bring up in conversation and use those topics as a gauge. Of course, you should only share information that you are comfortable with sharing. The main point is to engage in casual small talk with as many members of your organization as possible, so that you can forge those personal relationships that will help you to excel in your position.
Pro tip #5: Make an effort to engage in pleasant small talk with everyone in your organization. This will help to set you apart as someone everyone wants to work with.
Small talk can open doors to greater opportunities. It is never a waste of time to engage in small talk with a person, especially if you do not know that person very well. By having a casual conversation with someone, you can, little by little, learn more about him or her. A casual conversation can also help that person to learn more about you. The more they learn about you the more likely they may be to volunteer to help you with that project you’re trying to get off the ground, or to introduce you to a higher-up in the organization you’ve been hoping to speak with.
Small talk is a skill that you can learn, like a yo-yo trick, or playing the banjo. One of the best ways to learn and improve your small talk skills is to watch others and pay attention. Listen carefully to the topics they discuss and their word choices. Look at their body language, hand gestures, and facial expressions, and listen to the tone of voice used.
Pro tip #6: Practice small talk. Practice it everywhere and with everyone you encounter. Practice with strangers (unlike in other places, talking to strangers is a completely acceptable thing to do in the United States). Practice with the grocery clerk, the librarian, and that lady at the café who remembers how you like your coffee. The more you practice, the closer you will be to mastering small talk.
Everyone does small talk a little differently. Using your observations of many different people, develop your own small talk style. The comments you make, the way you raise your eyebrows, what you do with your hands, and the tone of your voice when you say, “Wow!” all come together to make an impact on your listener. Your small talk style is unique to you.
The best way to really learn something is to seek out someone who can help you. A speech coach can help you to identify your strengths and weaknesses in the area of small talk, and can help you practice and perfect your small talk. At Lingua East, we want to help you succeed, and we’d love to help you develop your own small talk style. Contact us to master those small conversations that can lead to something bigger.