International students and professionals alike are often unsure how to engage in American small talk.
It’s one of the most common questions I get, especially from foreign-born people who are already working at an American firm. They have realized that small talk is a key part of American culture, and it’s difficult to master. In fact, although it often seems trivial or unimportant to many newcomers to the US, it’s very important to your career and relationships at work.
Not being able to do small talk well can impact everything from your job interview outcomes to whether or not you get promoted.
Small talk (and casual conversation in general) may seem silly or superficial, but being “fluent” in small talk and American-style casual conversation can unlock a lot of opportunities for you and deepen your relationships with co-workers.
And it will help you feel more comfortable and confident in your workplace.
So here are 3 basic strategies you can use to help you become a small talk master!
1.Use the Wh questions What, When, Where, How.
In your conversational culture, it may be common to sit and listen quietly to the speaker. However, in the US, it’s more common to ask questions to show interest.
Erika: I went to LA last weekend.
Kyoko: Oh sounds great. I love LA! What did you do there? Where did you go?
Erika: We went to Koreatown and to Santa Monica. We also went to the Getty museum. It was awesome.
Be curious! Show a genuine interest in the experience of the speaker.
2.Share your experience.
Don’t just leave the conversation hanging, or say “that’s great” and quit.
Continue with something related from your background. If you have nothing to add that’s directly related, you can pivot. Like this:
Kyoko: “I was in LA last summer and we had a great time. We ate dinner in Koreatown and it was amazing. If you’re interested in, I can share the restaurant names with you.”
Erika: “That would be great. We’re going back to LA next month, and I’m always looking for new restaurants!
But let’s imagine that Kyoko had never been to LA. Instead of saying nothing, she can share her experience with a “pivot,” a slight change of the topic:
Kyoko: “Wow, I’ve never been to LA, but I love traveling – last week we went to Vegas. It was really hot but we had some great food and saw some shows. Have you ever been there?”
Erika: “Yes, I’ve been to Vegas many times. Mostly for work but I do enjoy the casinos unfortunately because my husband hates them! haha. We should meet up next time you guys are there.”
It’s true that Americans like to talk about the weather but how far can you really go with that? And more importantly, if you’re in a job interview, you should be a little more creative with your topics. For one thing, you want them to remember you, so you don’t want to sound like everyone else.
Here’s a brief list of topics you can incorporate in your small talk and casual conversation. (Some of these require a little research on your part!)
2.Recent holidays/ holidays coming up
3.Transportation (car ownership, bikes, local bus, train, taxi, Uber, etc)
4.Social media, apps, internet, YT channels they like
5.What kind of internet stuff do you follow / like?
8.Seasonal conversation – seasonal holidays
9.Regional topics – place of origin – Where are you from originally? How is it different from here? (Many Americans are from different parts of the country that may be very different than wherever they’re currently living. It’s a rich topic of conversation.)
10.Local culture and activities – what’s your neighborhood like?
Good luck with this topics. Don’t be shy! With practice and a little time, you’ll be getting along great with co-workers, supervisors and hiring managers.