Business English Small Talk - 5 of the Most Common Mistakes
Updated: Dec 3, 2018
I used to think small talk was a special kind of torture. Just the thought of that awkward moment discussing the weather with a random stranger would give me nightmares.
So for years I avoided small talk as if my lack of participation would somehow force hundreds of millions of people to re-think its central role in social interaction.
Through experience, however, I learned that this was a big mistake.
At some point early in my career I began to realize two things:
1. Small talk plays a valuable role in the English-speaking world and is not going away any time soon.
2. When used properly, small talk can have a huge positive impact on your personal and professional life.
Since that moment of enlightenment I have worked to constantly improve my small talk skills.
As with most things, experience was a great teacher. But small talk is also an art that, through practice, can be learned.
In this article I’m going to tell you 5 of the most common business English small talk mistakes that I see all the time.
Most people don’t notice these things and so they would have a hard time telling you why they enjoyed a conversation with one person but not the next.
For most people good small talk just feels right.
But when you consciously consider the techniques behind the interaction, you’ll have the power to intentionally make a positive impression on people and begin experiencing the tremendous benefits of small talk.
Small Talk is Not About Talking
I know what you’re thinking. How can I small talk without talking? And you’re right, it can’t be done.
But one of the biggest mistakes I see people make with small talk is that they talk.
…and talk some more.
And worst of all, they are talking the entire time about themselves!
Sure there are successful small talk techniques that you can use to talk about yourself, but the primary goal should be to listen to what the other person or people are saying, and to react to what you hear.
Business English learners are often nervous about small talk because they feel like they won’t know what to say or will say something silly.
But then I lead them through a conversation and they realize that they really don’t have to say anything at all!
Small talk is all about being efficient with your words. If you listen more and talk less then your anxiety about business English small talk will disappear.
You Can’t Talk
Now I know I said small talk is not about talking but you didn’t have to take me so literally!
A big mistake that I see people make at business events, social gatherings, etc., is they come in and immediately head for the food.
Of course, it is fine if you grab a few appetizers and a drink. In fact, it would be strange if you didn’t.
But don’t let a mouth full of food distract you from your main focus of listening to your small talk partner and responding with a few timely words of your own.
Of course small talk takes place in all situations and lunch meetings and dinner events are two of the most common. Here again I just suggest that you take your time and eat slowly so you are ready to speak at any point in the conversation.
Wanting or Expecting Something
This is a huge business small talk mistake.
In fact, I would go so far to say this is an epidemic at business schools across the English-speaking world.
Business students arrive at a networking event or conference and immediately proceed to tell everybody how great they are and ask senior businesspeople for a job.
While I admire the ambition, it can be obvious or borderline insulting to the other people that they are speaking with.
If you don’t have any interests outside of your immediate personal gain, then it’s going to be difficult to enjoy the enormous benefits of small talk and networking.
A better approach is to do a few minutes of research before the event so you can arrive with a small talk strategy that will make people like you instead of running in the other direction when they see you coming.
You’re At the Wrong Event
Sure you might be physically standing in the conference hall, but mentally you’re on another planet.
You might not realize it, but your small talk partner does!
If you don’t make a real effort to show interest in your small talk partner then it will not go well. They’ll become self-conscious that you are not listening to them and will likewise lose interest in you and the conversation.
So many business English learners think they have to have a massive vocabulary or ask a ton of questions to be good at small talk.
But there are techniques that you can learn to increase your awareness and extend the conversation without really saying anything.
The simplest of these techniques are things like putting away your mobile phone, making eye contact, nodding your head and using filler words like “uh huh”, “hmm”, or “REALLY”.
Again, think efficiency.
If you focus on your small talk partner then there will be less focus on you. This means less pressure to speak until you are ready.
The Wrong Approach
Just as it is exponentially more difficult to learn a language without context, to be successful at business English small talk it is important for you to keep it in the proper context.
By this I mean that you should understand what small talk is and what it is not.
Small talk is not about talking for no reason about things that nobody cares about.
Remember, your small talk partner is a human just like you. And no sane human wants to talk for thirty minutes or an hour about the weather.
If you have difficulty thinking of topics, have a look at these five websites that I recommend all business English learners read.
Like all great communication, small talk is about finding common areas of interest and connecting with people. When done right it can lead to additional knowledge, business opportunities and friendships.
So be optimistic and before your next small talk opportunity remind yourself of everything you have to gain instead of everything you have to lose.
About the Author
Jason Gower is the creator and instructor of Expand Life Business English courses. He has more than fifteen years of business experience and has learned both German and Spanish to a C2 level. Click to learn more about Expand Life Business English courses.