• Small Talk


    What is small talk? One student, an IBM engineer in Switzerland, called it, ‘The English to cope with the town.’ It’s what you say to get to know people. You use it round the water cooler in the office, at a reception, when you escort a visitor to the elevator at the end of a meeting or meet them in reception. And dozens of other environments.

    Small talk is a way of finding common ground with your contact. If you can find common experiences or interests you build a stronger relationship, which will support you in business. Small talk helps you build relationships and in a relationship oriented market, such as Asia, the Middle East, Africa or Latin countries, it is especially important.

    The problem is what do you ‘small talk’ about? The weather? Sport? Cultural achievement? I’ve been working with a new group of executives this week and in the small talk between workshop sessions it was fascinating to learn about their experience, their lives and their origins. One executive’s father was born in Senegal. Another came from Cameroun. A third had the unusual name in France of Hadrien (after the Roman Emperor, Hadrian). Normally, French children are named after a saint in the calendar but his mother had read the novel, Hadrian, by the French author Marguerite Yourcenar so she named him Hadrien. The local mayor who registered the birth, had also read the book so he agreed. Fascinating! and it created a link.

    These are small things, perhaps but important in building relationships.


    It’s important, if you can, to avoid stereotypes. Stereotypes fix people. What is more important is to recognise GENERALISATIONS, general statements that are true for most people in a country.

    However, there are several levels of generalisation that influence the person you deal with.

    They are national experience, regional experience, professional experience, social experience and personal experience.

    National experience: the way that our nationality influences our behaviour and the way we react to other people.

    Regional experience: the way we are affected by our regional background. This may modify the way we are affected by our national experience. In some cases it may be even more important.

    Professional experience: How has my job or my profession or previous job affected me?

    Social experience: How has the place I grew up, my family, my social background affected me?

    Personal experience: Have I lived or studied abroad? Can I speak a foreign language? Have I got international experience of any kind? If so, I may be more open to working with other nationalities.


    www.executiveplanet.com is good on acceptable and unacceptable topics of conversation in different countries. They recommend ICEBREAKERS, ways of starting a conversation but they also warn about, what Mike Nicks and I call ICEMAKERS – ways of stopping a conversation. One way to recognise icemakers is to consider CULTURAL FAULT LINES. In Geology, fault lines in the earth cause earthquakes and tsunamis. In culture, cultural faultlines cause tensions within a community.

    They may be lines you should not cross in conversation. At least, not until you know people well. The main faultlines are these.

    Linguistic: Language communities may not get on, for example, French and Flemish in Belgium or, maybe, French speaking Quebecois in Canada.

    Religious: We know there are considerable religious tensions in the Middle East and within Islam but there have also been tensions between Catholics and Protestants, in Northern Ireland, for example.

    Regional: How do you refer to the disadvantaged areas of a country? For example, the north of England is still considered poorer than the south, although parts of it are very rich. In Italy, the mezzogiorno, south of Rome, is traditionally the poorer part of Italy.

    National: There are still national rivalries between countries that have been at war for centuries. There is a traditional rivalry between Britain and France. Nowadays, it is more humorous than serious. In Germany many people complain about the British. ‘Why do they keep talking about the Second World War?’

    Social: In some countries it is inappropriate to ask about wives and families. In others it is good to ask about children’s progress but not about wives. In China you would probably not ask, ‘How many children have you got?’ Thanks to the ‘one child’ policy it is unlikely to be more than one and just the question may cause embarrassment.

    Money and politics: Another of sensitivity is salaries and politics. In some countries people exchange information reasonably freely. In others these are taboo subjects. In China, people often cite the ‘three T’s’ you shouldn’t mention. They are Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen Square. This has become rather a cliché but it indicates where people may be sensitive.


    • The key is to be sensitive to the people you are with and the country you are in and try not to cause offence.

    • The best way is to research the country and also not to ask about local scandals and controversies until you know who you are talking to.

    • Finally, a good way to hold a neutral but useful small talk conversation is to ask the neutral questions in the Get To Know Jo exercise below.


    I use GET TO KNOW JO as a training exercise. It represents five questions which you can use with anyone you meet and which help you to learn quite a lot about the people you meet.

    1/ NATIONALITY Where are you from?

    2/ REGION What part are you from? What’s special about it?

    3/ JOB What did you do before this? How was it different from what you do now?

    4/ EXPERIENCE Have you been abroad?

    If you ask these simple neutral questions you can learn a lot about the person you are with. If you follow up the answers they give with follow-up’ questions, you can learn even more. At the end I ask the group, what is the most interesting thing you have learned about the person you talked to.?’ You get amazing results. Try it. It works.

    You can read more examples and listen to recordings in KEY BUSINESS SKILLS by Barry Tomalin, published by HARPER COLLINS in December 2012.


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