A colleague recently mentioned that not only does he not like making small talk, he doesn’t even like hearing it. We all engage in it every day. How important is it in the workplace?
Think about the person who comes into the office in the morning and greets everyone by name and asks how the weekend was. Do you consider that a nuisance or simple friendliness? Contrast that to the woman who walks in with her head down, not acknowledging anyone. Do people assume she is shy, unfriendly, distracted, angry, or arrogant?
Small talk in the office is usually fairly basic. It generally involves conversation about the daily commute, news items, and sporting events. You can join in or dismiss it easily. There are times, however, when small talk takes on a greater importance. Suppose, for example, that you leave a bit early for a meeting, and your boss is the only one who has gotten there before you. You generally can’t sit in silence waiting for your coworkers to arrive. Or, you have been asked to meet and escort an important customer to an internal meeting. Once again, a bit of small talk might be required.
The trick to small talk is focusing on the other person and listening. People like it when others pay attention to them. One exception to this is during a job interview, especially if you are invited to lunch or dinner. During these times, the goal is for the prospective employer to find out more about you. You may be asked questions like, “Have you read any good books lately?” or, “Do you do any sports?” or, “Are you involved in your community?” While you want to appear comfortable and companionable, and have a bit of a conversational exchange (“How about you? Do you play tennis?”), you don’t want to come across like Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing asking Senator Klobuchar if she had a drinking problem.
In routine social situations it is easier to turn the attention to the other person. This is especially helpful if you want to keep your private life private. If asked if you have kids and you say “no,” it is only natural to ask the question in return (even if you really don’t care to know). A few short follow-up questions and nods can keep the small talk going and focused away from you and your life until you can escape.
What is necessary is being smooth with your questions and actually listening to what people tell you. If you master these small social skills, others will go away saying what an interesting/nice/pleasant (you choose what you want to portray) person you are. And, who knows? You might learn something useful, or even stop hating small talk.