Making Small Talk in Business Settings

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

When you're not a native English speaker, making small talk in a business setting can be difficult. In this lesson, you'll learn how to both make and participate in small talk in an office environment.

What's Small Talk?

The first step to understanding how to make small talk is to understand the definition of small talk. Basically, small talk is a short, friendly conversation about a common topic. Small talk can take place among friends, co-workers, or strangers. One reason why the ability to make small talk in business settings is so important is because small talk allows people to be friendly at work without getting too personal.

Many companies and business organizations have rules for employees about which types of behavior and conversations are acceptable. When small talk is used correctly, it can help people communicate well without breaking company guidelines or social rules.

Making Small Talk

When you have an opportunity to engage in small talk with other people, it's important to choose a good topic. Some of the most common small talk topics include:

  • Sports/athletes
  • Music/movies/books
  • Weather
  • Travel/tourism
  • Hobbies
  • Food/restaurants
  • Technology

These topics are considered safe because even though people will have different opinions about them, the differences are unlikely to cause problems. For example, if you like Italian restaurants and your co-worker likes Mexican restaurants, this is just a matter of personal choice and not a major issue.

Small Talk Mistakes

When you make small talk, try to avoid topics that are personally sensitive, or that may cause someone to become upset. Some topics to avoid include:

  • Religion and politics: These topics can be very personal and quickly lead to arguments if people disagree, so it's best to avoid them in a business setting.
  • Family/relationship status: It's okay to ask about someone's family, but only if you already know them. If someone's relative just died or he or she just got a divorce, this topic can create bad feelings between you and the other person.
  • Money: Telling others how much money you make or asking them how much money they make is very inappropriate and should be avoided. You should also avoid gossiping about the financial situations of co-workers or managers.
  • Jokes: Some jokes may be okay if they're clean and inoffensive. However, don't tell potentially offensive jokes that involve racism, sexism, violence, and other inappropriate workplace topics.

People can sometimes have strong feelings about these topics. If the conversation goes badly, you may have an awkward relationship with that co-worker, manager, or client in the future.

Small Talk Tips

There are several phrases you can use to begin and keep a small talk conversation going. For instance:

  • Do you like _____?
  • Have you seen/heard _____?
  • What did you think of _____?
  • I really enjoyed _____.
  • I've heard good things about _____.
  • Have you ever been to _____.
  • I though that _____ was _____.
  • Who/what is your favorite _____?

Remember, when you make small talk, you want to listen more than you speak; if you talk too much, the other person may become bored. One of the best ways to keep conversations going is to ask questions and listen carefully to the other person's answers.

Small Talk Examples

These small talk examples demonstrate how small talk can be used to create a friendly, comfortable workplace environment.

Scenario 1

It's Monday morning and Jeff, Mary, and Sandra are in the break room making coffee.

  • Jeff: Did you see the football game yesterday?
  • Mary: My husband watched it, but I wasn't really paying attention.
  • Sandra: I went to a movie.
  • Jeff: Really? What did you see?
  • Sandra: The new Star Battles film.
  • Mary: I heard good things about that movie.
  • Jeff: Did you like it?
  • Sandra: It was pretty good, but I thought it was a little too long.

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