Posted on 2010/11/17
Communication Corner: Small Talk
You’ve signed up for a new class and it is your first day.
You’ve started your first job in Canada and you’re having lunch in the staff lunchroom.
These are perfect opportunities to start a conversation, but how do you begin? How can you break the ice? Will you understand everything others say? These are natural concerns that anyone who lives in a cross cultural environment may have.
Canadians are masters of small talk. Small talk is an important part of social networking and business communication in the workplace. Making small talk is considered such an important topic that it is covered in many language classes. No doubt you have heard that Canadians like to talk about the weather, and this is always a safe icebreaker. “My, it’s windy out there. I almost got knocked down!” “Can you believe this snow?” “The forecast says rain for the weekend. Wouldn’t you know it?”
Test yourself. Which of these topics do you think are suitable for small talk?
a. The latest movie you’ve seen
b. Faith and religion
c. The sport of ice hockey
d. A product you are selling as a side business
e. The justice system and penalties for crimes
f. How much money you make
g. Your last holiday
h. Your favourite movie-star
i. The best political party
If you picked a, c, g, and h then you are correct. These are considered “safe” topics. To Canadians, the other topics are either controversial or too personal to talk about with acquaintances or people they don’t know well.
Importance of Small Talk
Even if you are in a technical profession or if you work independently, do not underestimate the importance of small talk. Many Canadian employers like to hire people who are at ease in social situations and who can make others feel comfortable.
Dr. Lionel Laroche, PhD, P.Eng, author of Managing Cultural Diversity in Technical Professions, and President of MCB Solutions, a cross-cultural consulting company, writes that “Canadian employers often do not promote or hire newcomer professionals based on their perceived lack of soft skills”.
Small talk is a soft skill.
Likewise, a manager from KPMG advised an international professional: “if you’ve got to the interview stage, we’ve already assessed your technical skills. Personality is important.”
Communication as a Two-Way Process
There are unwritten rules for conversation in all cultures. In Japan, silence is an important part of social discourse and it is common for there to be long pauses after each person speaks. Richard D. Lewis, author of When Cultures Collide: Managing Successfully Across Cultures, writes that in Japan, “lulls in conversation are considered restful, friendly and appropriate.” In other cultures, however, two or more people may be talking all at once with little or no periods of silence.
In Canada, there is a high value placed on listening until the other person has finished. If interrupted, many Canadians will become annoyed. In some cultures where people interrupt one another and finish others’ thoughts, it is considered a compliment, that is, that the two people are in harmony.
Small Talk at Networking Events
Let’s say that you attend an event organized by your professional association. There is some time before the event to mingle and to get to know each other. In other words, it is a perfect opportunity to network. What do you say to a complete stranger?
Firstly, it is appropriate to introduce yourself. People usually state what their job title is or what occupation they are in. If you are not working, (never state that you are unemployed!) it is perfectly okay to say: “Hi, My name is Eva Smith. I’m a chemical engineer, and I’ve recently moved to Vancouver.” This will prompt more small talk. You might be asked where you have moved from, what you think of Vancouver, how you like the weather, and so on. The conversation might then turn to work. You might be asked what your specialty is, and this would be your opportunity to say, for example, that having just moved to Vancouver that you are currently pursuing employment opportunities. Never use the word job! “I’m looking for a job” has a certain negative and almost desperate ring to it. Looking for employment opportunities; however, opens you up to more possibilities.
It is a good idea to have networking cards to hand out. Get cards professionally printed at Staples or any other office supplies store. “Here is my card. If you hear of any employment opportunities in chemical or plastics manufacturing, please feel free to contact me.” The person you are talking to will probably also hand you his or her card. This is a great strategy as you can follow up with that person later on.
In summary, small talk is a technique to help you integrate both at work and while you are looking for work. If you are unsure how to initiate a conversation, start chatting with the cashier at the grocery store, and gradually build your confidence to talk to other professionals in your field. Remember, comments about the weather always work! In no time you will be a master of the art of small talk!
Employment Counsellor/Mentoring Coach
IPSO, JVS Toronto