Importance of Timing and Topics in Small Talk

Posted On: October 20, 2015

Putting together the puzzle of small talk

Small talk comes in various forms in the U.S. In this short post, let’s look at two elements of small talk interactions- timing and topics.

Importance of Timing in Small Talk
Most of the time, meetings will start with a few minutes of small talk up to five or six minutes of small talk can ensue for colleagues that already know each other. This small talk moves into business discussions, then the meeting again ends with small talk. Small talk at the end of a meeting is usually for a shorter amount of time than the beginning of the meeting started with. However, the exception to this occurs when the agenda concludes with time remaining before the meeting is to end. For instance, when meeting colleagues at Harvard recently, we concluded our business discussion within 35 minutes. As the meeting was for 50 minutes (a one hour meeting is typically only 45-50 minutes), we filled the remaining time with small talk, catching up on our professional accomplishments and milestones and other related topics. 

Importance of Topics in Small Talk 
There are many dos and don’ts when it comes to small talk in the professional arena in the US. Knowing when to make small talk (as noted above), what kinds of small talk and the acceptable and avoidable topics are all important elements to successful business discussions. While it’s true that foreigners have a lot to learn and can make many mistakes, Americans aren’t perfect either! On one of the campus visits, I was introduced to some new faces. One of these new faces started the conversation with, “Are you married?” This took me aback as this is not a common or acceptable question in small talk discussions, especially among strangers in the U.S. While it’s culturally unacceptable in most cases to ask these questions, it can depend on the working culture of that company or group or that person’s openness. In this particular case, I quickly realized that this person was very open and enjoyed talking about any topic from family to food habits. She also asked me, “Did you eat lunch yet?” which is not a common question for Americans to ask. As I handled this question by hesitating to answer, she realized my discomfort, and quickly apologized by saying, “Oh sorry about that, I am just asking this as I know you had traveled in from out of town. I thought you may not have had a chance to eat since you got here. Would you like a coffee instead?”

While we may not always know the topics to avoid or questions that are appropriate, we can always try to take time to understand the person talking with us by observing their body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. Just like how that colleague who did not know me understood the lunch question was uncomfortable to me by my hesitation or body language, understanding people’s reaction to our words can help us to respond better. With Americans, keeping in mind the use of pleasantries like “I’m sorry,” or “Excuse me,” can mean a lot, using these in places where we think we have made a mistake can save us in many situations.

If you or your team members are working with Americans and want to understand more about the U.S. work culture and values that cause some of the above situations to happen in American workplaces, contact us today for tailor-made training programs that help individuals and teams assume more influence and leadership while working with Americans from abroad or onshore in the U.S.



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