The art of small talk – is it an important skill?

small talk

No matter what kind of job you want to get, chances are some part of it will involve talking to other people (unless you really want to be a ranger on an uninhabited island, perhaps). Like all things, some people are naturally gifted at small talk; others not so much. Fortunately, it’s actually something you can work on and improve. So don’t let your fear of chit chat hold you back – see why it’s important for your future career and how you can build your small talk skills.

What exactly is ‘small talk’?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines small talk like this:

“Conversation about things that are not important, often between people who do not know each other well.”

The two key parts of small talk are that the topic is something mundane and that it’s usually with someone you don’t know. This is generally what makes it so daunting compared to other kinds of conversation – meeting new people can be really tricky! But in social, professional, and business settings, being able to break the ice is incredibly valuable.

Imagine you’re out looking for a new pair of shoes. You step into the shop and a salesperson sees you, but doesn’t say anything. You both stand around and wait for someone to talk…but nothing happens! Weird, right? You wouldn’t be alone in feeling uncomfortable in that situation – and that worker’s manager or boss probably won’t be too happy about that interaction either.

Like it or loathe it, that’s why small talk is important.

The importance of small talk

At the end of the day, what you’re talking about isn’t really relevant at all. Engaging in conversation with someone, no matter the topic, can help you become more confident and even build some valuable skills. Here are some of the top benefits of small talk:

  • It helps you improve your active listening skills.
  • It makes you a better communicator.
  • It acts as a starting point for building deeper relationships and trust.
  • It’s a way to find others with similar interests.
  • It helps you become more confident and spontaneous.
  • It makes you seem more friendly and approachable.
  • It actually makes us feel happier.

And here are some ways small talk can improve your job prospects:

  • It makes networking easier.
  • When applying for jobs, employers don’t just look at your qualifications – they also consider the way you present yourself and even your interests (plus it makes interviews less nerve-wracking).
  • If you have good relationships with the people you work with, you’re more likely to be engaged and productive at work.
  • A chance conversation might lead you towards a great opportunity you might not have known about otherwise.

Small talk tips

Now we know what small talk is and why it’s useful, let’s dive into some tips for making engaging and productive small talk.

Be nice

It can be tricky to remember sometimes, but when striking up a conversation or you find someone approaching you to talk, don’t forget to smile and greet the other person warmly. Starting off on the right foot can set the tone for the rest of the conversation.

Mind your body language

When engaging in face-to-face conversation, it’s not just your words you need to think about. Try and pay attention to your body language too – eye contact, nodding, and maintaining a relaxed posture can help put the other person at ease and assure them that they’re not wasting your time. And definitely put your phone down (and resist the urge to check it constantly).

Listen…

Stretch your active listening muscles and give the other person your full attention. Try not to let your mind wander, fret over what you’ll say next, or talk over the top of the other person.

…And talk

One-sided conversations are awkward for everyone. Asking open-ended questions is a great way to engage someone – but don’t forget to share a bit about yourself too. Respond to questions with interest; if someone asks “how are you?” don’t just reply with “good”. Instead, give the other person info to keep the conversation going, like saying “good thanks, I’m looking forward to my holiday in Japan in a couple of weeks. I’ve never been before and I’m really excited”.

Pick an appropriate topic

What you talk about with someone can vary greatly depending on context. If you meet someone at a concert, it’s probably a safe bet to assume they’ll want to talk about music. On the other hand, if you’re at a networking event, people are probably there to talk about their careers. Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, calls this “free information” – things you can learn about people you’ve never met based on context.

If you really can’t think of anything, here are some topics that are usually a safe bet:

  • Entertainment (movies, books, games, music, etc.)
  • Hobbies
  • Sports
  • Travel
  • Weather (cliché, but it works!)
  • Recent events

And here are some topics you should generally stay away from at all costs (unless you know they are relevant to the situation):

  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Physical appearance (though things like cool hair colours, interesting accessories, or even tattoos can be OK)
  • Money

Know when to wrap it up

One reason some people hate small talk is because it can often drag on for too long without being productive. Pay attention to the other person’s body language or level of engagement – if they seem like they want to go, it’s best to end the conversation. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or don’t want to continue, that’s OK too. Here are some tips for closing:

  • Say something positive about the chat (“It was nice to meet you. Thanks for the fishing tips, I’ll keep them in mind next time I go.”)
  • Using a “need” is a good way to signal the end of the conversation (“I need to talk to my partner/get some food/go to the bathroom.”)
  • If you want, mention meeting again in the future or swapping contact information.

Practise makes perfect

Like any other skill, the more you do it, the better you’ll become. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation when you’re grabbing a coffee, waiting for the bus, or starting a new class. And don’t forget to be kind to yourself too – not every experience is going to be successful, but they’re all good learning opportunities.

Need more help?

The art of small talk has become big business. Many people feel their conversational skills took a hit during the pandemic, and are now looking for ways to make connecting with others easier. If you’re not quite ready to jump out there and start chatting, there are heaps of online courses out there to help you build your confidence and skills – here are just a few:

Building skills for your career

You can find tons more blogs, guides, and tips on skills, job applications, work experience, and much more on our website here.

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