Break the ice with small talk

If you want to succeed in business or most any other endeavor, you must master the art of small talk.

Most pursuits involve interaction with other human beings, whether they be employers or coworkers or customers, and those humans will judge you on your ability to keep up a conversation about, um, nothing.

Some people think you should only speak when you have something important to say. We call these quiet types “the unemployed.” Others are shy, and it truly pains them to speak up. But they must overcome their reticence unless they intend to work their whole lives as “mimes.”

Speaking of the French, the term “small talk” originated in France, where it’s known as “un petit palaver.” The French are famous for their ability to talk endlessly about nothing at all, but we should remember that they are drunk on red wine, which tends to make people talk too much and wear berets.

You don’t have to be French to become a “maestro” of small talk. Anyone can do it, given practice and the right mental outlook. (Red wine doesn’t hurt, though take care not to overdo it. It’s a fine line between scintillating chat and drunken blather. Ask any waitress.)

The secret to small talk is to ask questions. People love to talk about themselves, and as long as you can stay awake during their answers, they’ll come away thinking you’re a charismatic, intelligent person who sincerely cares about others. As we all know, if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.

How to get started? Small talk usually begins with “icebreaker” questions that are simple, direct and innocent of underlying intent. Questions as easy as “What’s your name?“ or “Where are you from?” open avenues for small talk. As you become comfortable with those, you can move up to more involved questions, such as “What can I do for you today?” or “How about this weather?” or “Where did you get that nifty beret?”

Once the ice is broken, follow the other person’s lead. This requires “listening.” If you pay attention to what the other person says, it’ll naturally lead to other questions that help maintain the conversation. Questions such as “Anything else?” or “Hot enough for you?” or “Are you French?”

Advanced small-talkers pick up cues from the environment. In an office setting, look for family photos, framed diplomas or evidence of hobbies to find common ground. These cues can lead to questions such as “Are those your children?” or “Oh, so you graduated from technical school?” or “Do you enjoy fishing?” (Caution: Be prepared for hours of tedium if you ask, “Is that a picture of your car?”)

You want to get personal, but not too personal. Inappropriate questions can lead to embarrassment, demotion, even unemployment. Some examples:

“What happened to your hair?”
“How come your children don’t look like you?”
“How about them Cowboys?”
“Can’t you have that removed?”
“What’s that smell? Is that you?”
“Did you vote for that idiot?”
“Is that red wine in your coffee cup? At this hour?”
“How’d you like a kick in the butt, frog-face?”

Remember to keep it simple. Not too deep. You’re not jumping into the conversational ocean here. Small talk is like a spring-swollen stream -- shallow and swift. Steer clear of inappropriate questions and really listen to what others say, and you’ll do fine.

If you find yourself stuck in a conversational corner, try this: “Parlez vous Francais?”

1 comment:

Life without Clots said...

With my luck, they would respond, "Oui, bien sûr. J'ai grandi en France."