How to spice up your small talk

Why do you help your clients with small talk in Business English? Surely, this is something everyone can manage.” I was asked this question a few weeks ago by an acquaintance of mine who speaks good English and used to live abroad.


A surprising number of smart, competent business people don’t understand why small talk matters to them - and to their success in business. They think it is something you just do and don’t think much about. 


Small talk is just not for fun, it’s part of your business communication strategy. Skip it and you notice how you create more misunderstandings.

Once you understand small talk, it becomes a tool for building rapport with others and to establishing trustful relationships and sympathy.


If you want to use small talk to help you succeed in business, you need a specific set of skills that aren’t discussed in general English classes at school. Business English small talk requires different skills. It requires good communication skills. By this I mean for example listening for clues, responding appropriately. And making sure that you don’t give a monologue. It is something that people sometimes misunderstand. On the other hand make sure not to reply just with yes and no. This stops every small talk conversation in its early stages because you offer no content for follow-up questions.



How to build rapport with small talk


Building rapport is often about showing interest in your conversation partners. I am sure you have very interesting conversation partners in international business. With a little curiosity and a subtle style, you can have very interesting small talk conversations. 

Especially conversation partners from other cultures are very interesting. You can find out how things are done in their culture, about different cultural traditions and their meanings, work ethics, eating habits to name just a few things. When you listen carefully for clues you will find a lot of topics to discuss. 



For great small talk, change the way you think.


We need to build rapport, talk about the weather, and then play some “verbal ping-pong”. Here I mean to find things we have in common and can explore a little further.  This could be a hobby, interest or something we experienced. 

Does small talk sound like a tedious duty? If you look at it from a different perspective, you might realize it’s fun. When you approach small talk with an open mind and actually enjoy connecting with other people then you will surely be rewarded with a lot of nice business contacts. Our body language signals others whether we are open to connect with them or not. So, if you manage to spark some interest in connecting with others your conversation partners will mirror it back to you.



Questions you can ask for better small talk and business relationships.


Another way of diving deeper into small talk conversations with international business partners is to find out carefully what makes them tick. 

Some example questions are around the topics:



  1. What kind of person are they?
  2. What are their values?
  3. What motivates them?
  4. What is their vision in business? etc., etc.


Please be careful not to ask these questions too directly. But when you wrap them in a nice indirect question, you have the potential to come into interesting conversations.

Bear in mind, that it is a small talk conversation and not an interview.

Sometimes people tend to forget that and fire one question after the other. But it is not the intention of small talk. It is a light and easy conversation and the trick is to ask questions in a light and polite manner.


Here’s an example of how you can make your question fit the situation - without sounding like an interrogation:


You're meeting with the development manager from another branch of your company who is from India. Your conversation partner lets you know that she is here for one month on business and is normally based in Mumbai. You ask:


I’ve never been to India. Would you mind telling me what are important values in your country?


Do you see what I mean? 

Here are some more questions you can thoughtfully add to your conversation. You’ll learn something about your conversation partner, show interest in them, and establish rapport.


  • You seem very busy in your job. So, I guess it is really motivating to work as a software developer?
  • May I ask you what an interesting job looks like for you?
  • Do you mind if I ask you what values you can live in your job?
  • I guess to have a clear vision is vital in your business. Would you mind telling me what your vision is?
  • What exactly is it that you find fulfilling in your job?
  • May I ask how you would describe yourself?



Advanced small talk conversations


If you are a more advanced English speaker and have already had some small talk conversations may I give you some insights into a little more advanced small talk?


Personally, I think it is also very interesting to compare cultures and why things are done differently sometimes. For example, why do we have a more direct way of communicating in Germany than in the UK? German is a more technical language than English and that’s why it is also more direct. English in comparison is more indirect and contains playing with the language. That’s what you can also see in some literature especially the writer Oscar Wilde loves playing with the language in his books and plays.



The takeaway: to succeed in business, master small talk.


Small talk is much more than easy chit-chat. When you practice it the right way in business you can have a lot of nice conversations. It depends also a little on your approach and perspective towards small talk. 

Especially in international business small talk is even more interesting because you can learn a lot about other cultures and their way of life.

It is a communication tool to connect, build trust and relationships. This way it leads to meaningful conversations rather than a tedious duty.



Ready to try this in the real world?

What are the challenges in small talk for you? Let me know in the comments.👇



Want to take this a step further?

If you need help with this challenge you might want to work with a coach. Please feel free to get in touch.



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What is crucial in communication with native English speakers? Find out more here.



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