Small Talk

There is an art to small talk in the business world. If it does not come naturally to you, have a few topics, stories, and questions ready in mind when entering events likely to involve small talk. Learning to chat well is helpful for networking and every day work interactions. Here are a few tips:


  • Do not ask too many questions as if you are a reporter. That is old advice. Few people at networking events want to be pummeled with the third degree about their jobs and personal lives after a long day at work.


  • Follow conversational cues. Throw out a few harmless go-to topics, such as interesting current events. For example, “Did you see the full moon eclipse last week?” Then transition to professional talk if it feels natural.


  • Politely end the interaction if the other person is not engaged. It may not be you. She may have a target person she wants to meet, or she may be tired, stressed, or hungry. It may be you. It does not matter. Move on.


  • Avoid overly personal topics. Unless responding to someone specifically raising a personal point, do not ask. You have no idea what topics are sensitive. Kids? She may have just had a miscarriage. Husband? He may have left recently. Only walk through the door if the person opens it.


  • Ask but do not probe. In most professional situations, it is appropriate to ask about work. Ask, but respect boundaries. If a person gives a short answer on something, do not probe further. It may be proprietary, or not something she wants to share.


  • Do not ask “What do you do?” Try a softer approach to seem less abrupt and allow for answers that may not be job focused, if the person prefers to steer the chat another way. We like to ask, as we are curious and knowing someone’s occupation helps us understand the person, but asking too directly can feel rude, especially in some cultures. Try alternatives like “What are you up to lately? What keeps you busy?”


  • Balance out time spent talking with time listening. If you hear yourself going on at length, pause and shift to listening.


  • Punt politely. If you get asked a question you do not want to answer in detail, turn it around and ask her the question. “I work in finance. What you do you?”


  • Back off if signaled to. If someone seems to cringe at answering work questions, she could be unhappy in her current position, or feeling down and embarrassed or frustrated. Or she might love her work, but be tired of the questions about it. Either way, if she does not want to share details, accept that and move on to lighter conversation. Many people just want to enjoy the event and get to know people on a more personal level.


  • Never lie. We read a blog post from a young professional woman who would pretend to be other identities at networking events. This is a very bad idea. Worlds cross paths in ways you may not predict. You could be seen as tacky, unprofessional, and untrustworthy. Your reputation matters.