There’s nothing small about the role that small talk plays in American professional culture. You can be the most technically skilled worker in the world, but your ability to move up the corporate ladder is highly dependent on your ability to build and maintain positive relationships with people at work. And for better or worse, one of the keys to that, at least in the United States, is an ability to make effective small talk.
People often say that when making small talk, you want to stick to neutral and non-controversial topics, in part, to avoid offending another person inadvertently. However, in my experience, making small talk in such a bland, and “vanilla” manner will indeed spare you from offending other people, but it will also likely make you unmemorable — and perhaps even boring. Is there a way to be “interesting” and “memorable” without offending people inadvertently in the process?
One trick I’ve discovered is that it’s not necessarily the topic you are discussing that matters the most: it’s how you discuss that topic. Let’s take, for example, the topic of the weather — one of the most common and also most clichéd topics for small talk discussions. You might think that any conversation about the weather is going to put people to sleep. Yet, the reality is that you can talk about the weather in a variety of different ways — boring, for sure, but also ways that are more interesting.
For example: a relatively boring comment about the weather might be: “Did you notice how sunny it is today?” Whereas a more interesting take might be something like: “Have you been outside? Have you seen how hot it is? I heard on TV that some guy tried to fry an egg on the sidewalk.” This comment is still about the weather, but has some “personality” to it. Or another engaging comment might be something like: Did you hear that we’ve had more snow this year than the last three years combined?” Or “Did you know the snow bank in front of my house is actually taller than my 11 year old daughter!”
In each of these latter cases, you infuse your personality into the discussion – which, again, in the US I find to be key for building connections. And chances are, you’re also much more memorable than simply commenting on the status of the sun.
Let’s look at another example– money. This is a topic many shy away from when making small talk in the US. In fact, some even see it as a bit “taboo” – but just like with the weather, it’s not the topic itself that matters most. It’s how you talk about it.
I always find it’s pretty easy to come up with a boring money comment — like: “Did you hear that the yield on treasury bonds increased by a few percentage points last week?” Or: “Better go out and refinance before rates go up again!” Although my economist friends might disagree, I’d argue that these are less than scintillating ways to engage someone at a cocktail party or networking event. In fact, if you lead with these, your partner will probably make a beeline for the dessert table.
So, instead, what if you put a little twist on the topic and talked about money but in a more interesting and engaging way? Perhaps something like: “Did you hear Warren Buffett pledged to give away 99% of his fortune to charity?” Or: “Did you know you can tell where a coin is minted by looking at the tiny little letter on the front or backside of the coin?” OK – perhaps that last one is only really interesting to people like me who collected coins as a kid, but you get the idea. In the end, small talk is in your hands. You can take virtually any topic and make it interesting or boring.
So, next time you’re out there at a networking event or a company get-together, get those creative juices flowing. Pick a topic of your choice, put on your own personal twist, and work your magic. I’m convinced you’ll be quite pleased with the results.
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017). Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.