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Mastering the Art of Small Talk

  • By Judith Bowman
  • |
  • August 1, 2017

You are at the dining table having a spirited discussion with the person on your left however, the person on your right is not responding and appears bored or disinterested.

You are walking from the reception area to their office or meeting room, going up the elevator 36 floors (!) with your host who says nothing.

Silence may be “golden”… or deafening!


Small talk is a really inappropriate expression for something that should be called the complete opposite: “big talk” “huge talk” or “really important talk” because it is the ice breaker which helps break barriers that retard building rapport and advancing interpersonal relationships.

mastering the art of small talk

This seemingly ordinary, everyday ritual of making small talk – especially with perfect strangers, can be daunting and a challenge only for the unpracticed. Small Talk is truly an art and a skill you can use to positively influence and jump-start new relationships. However, you need to practice every day in order to become proficient, and have savvy small talk become part of you and your savvy authentic self.

The seemingly inconsequential ordinary gesture of making Small Talk is analogous to the prelude before a performance or the preface of a book. It is the set-up for what we hope will be a seamless transition into meaningful business discussions.

The misleading term utterly misrepresents its undulating power. Small talk should be acknowledged for the singular opportunity it holds to adroitly manipulate (in all good ways) people and situations to your advantage. In fact, not accessing competent small talk can limit you and be detrimental in business.

When you take the time and make the effort to hone your small talk skills you will be richly rewarded as you experience the confidence in knowing you are not only helping place others at ease and making them feel special, you are at the same time, kindling the trust factor that spark relationships while quietly, yet most assuredly distinguishing yourself. The act of tactfully engaging others and the ability to artfully draw out the best in others to create more meaningful connections and advance careers cannot be overstated.

When you initiate the small talk with astute questions or comments, this accomplishes three important tasks:

1. Keeps you in the Control position.
2. Takes the burden off you to answer first.
3. Affords you the opportunity to hear the other person speak, thereby acquiring valuable information.

Information derived from listening to their voice including tone, inflections, words they use, grammar, diction, etc., permits you to get a sense of their inner emotions such as nervousness, boredom, trepidation; allowing you to ultimately adjust your own behavioral style and adapt to ultimately connect.

the art of business small talk

As for topics, anything out in plain view or even outdoors is fair game for small talk such as awards and plaques which further convey valuable information about the other person you can use to help advance your goals. The weather is rich in content, as is your recent flight, traffic, directions, their gorgeous gardens, the beautiful artwork, the new construction, etc.

Sports are also safe topics, however, sports teams are only a part of it. You may notice a sports watch or anything in their office revealing an avid golfer, yachtsman, runner, etc. It is absolutely appropriate to ask questions and make comments to enhance personal knowledge and advance relationships. However, be careful with your questions and comments without making them too personal.

Considering Culture with Small Talk

It is interesting to note that in High Context Cultures such as Asia and South America, business is never discussed or conducted during the first few meetings which include primarily of the company of family and close friends. Small talk and random conversation about anything other than business is the rule as meetings are focused exclusively on evaluating others to develop the critical trust factor simply required to conduct business in High Context Cultures.

Whereas an important characteristic of Low Context Cultures here in America for example, is the aspect of time, and, as the very American saying goes, “time is money!” Inherent in our genetic make-up is the urge to eliminate small talk and quickly get down to business at hand.

Understanding cultural nuances and the importance small talk plays in advancing personal rapport is integral to successfully competing in our global economy. Do your research and be prepared in any cultural environment where you hope to conduct future business.

Practice Makes Perfect

Practicing engaging others will help you hone this brilliant skill, make others feel acknowledged, may even help brighten another person’s day ultimately, making you feel pretty good, too! Extending a random greeting, unexpected comment or compliment prompting a reply and perhaps even leading to further dialogue is ultimately energizing for everyone.

Making something from nothing is an art and takes work. But changing what might otherwise be a non-eventful experience standing in the elevator or waiting for your latte, has the potential to be quickly altered into a memorable event or transformed into an enchanting experience while perhaps acquiring a significant new relationship along the way!

Are you just getting by or are you getting better? Get started today!

Author Bio

Judith Bowman founded Protocol Consultants International in 1993 and has prospered to become an established Business Protocol expert, educator, corporate speaker, and renowned authority in the field of Professional Presence, Dining Savvy, International Protocol Awareness, and personal and professional development. Ms. Bowman also provides Protocol Certification. She is a graduate of Boston College and has pursued studies in Effective Business Communication at Harvard University. Ms. Bowman speaks to critical interpersonal communication skills and shares specific nuances advantageous to exemplary conduct in today’s fast-paced and highly competitive global work environment. She showcases everyday business situations and shows professionals how to leverage these as opportunities to demonstrate respect while earning respect - while showing you know “the difference” while making a difference to stand apart and outclass the competition! Ms. Bowman has authored two business protocol books: “Don’t Take the Last Donut…” (Career Press) presently sold in 16 countries, translated in 14 languages, and her new book, “How to Stand Apart @ Work …” She has authored a weekly Everyday Etiquette column syndicated throughout New England for ten years by the Pulitzer Prize winning Eagle Tribune Publishing Company. Internationally, she authored a Business Protocol column for the prestigious Noblesse Magazine, China. She presently writes a weekly Business Protocol column for Boston Herald newspapers and has a coordinating weekly radio segment, “A Protocol Moment” on Herald Radio. She also writes a monthly Fabulous Woman series which features truly fabulous women who have shattered the glass ceiling and has been featured in Leader to Leader, March, 2015. Bowman has produced a series of support products which include: Executive Etiquette/First Impressions DVD, DINING 101 DVD and Protocol Training DVD – from her on-line How to Stand Apart series.