How to Make Small Talk with Anyone from Anywhere

Mastering the Art of Small Talk: Tips for Engaging Conversations Anywhere

Small talk can often be underestimated in its significance, yet it serves as the cornerstone of social interactions, enabling us to build connections, establish rapport, and navigate diverse social environments with ease. Whether you’re at a networking event, a social gathering, or even waiting in line at the grocery store, the ability to engage in meaningful small talk can open doors to new opportunities and enrich your personal and professional life. Here are some tips to help you make small talk with anyone, anywhere:

  1. Initiate with a Smile: A genuine smile is universally welcoming and sets a positive tone for the conversation. Approach others with warmth and openness, signaling your willingness to engage.
  2. Start with Observations or Compliments: Break the ice by making observations about your surroundings or offering sincere compliments. Whether it’s remarking on the weather, admiring someone’s attire, or appreciating the venue, find common ground to initiate conversation.
  3. Ask Open-Ended Questions: Foster dialogue by asking open-ended questions that invite the other person to share their thoughts and experiences. Avoid questions that elicit simple yes or no answers, and instead, inquire about their interests, hobbies, or opinions on relevant topics.
  4. Listen Actively: Practice active listening by giving your full attention to the speaker and demonstrating genuine interest in what they have to say. Maintain eye contact, nod in acknowledgment, and ask follow-up questions to show that you value their perspective.
  5. Find Common Ground: Look for common interests, experiences, or shared connections that you can bond over. Whether it’s a mutual hobby, a shared experience, or a common acquaintance, identifying common ground creates a sense of camaraderie and strengthens the connection.
  6. Be Authentic: Authenticity is key to building trust and rapport in conversations. Be yourself, express your genuine thoughts and emotions, and avoid trying to impress others with pretense or exaggeration. Authenticity breeds authenticity, inviting others to reciprocate and open up.
  7. Stay Positive and Upbeat: Maintain a positive and upbeat demeanor throughout the conversation, even if the topic veers towards more serious or challenging subjects. Offer words of encouragement, share uplifting stories, and inject humor when appropriate to keep the interaction light-hearted and enjoyable.
  8. Respect Boundaries and Diversity: Be mindful of cultural differences, personal boundaries, and sensitive topics that may arise during the conversation. Respect the perspectives and experiences of others, and steer clear of controversial subjects that could potentially alienate or offend.
  9. Know When to Wrap Up: Pay attention to nonverbal cues and signals that indicate when it’s time to conclude the conversation. Offer a polite exit strategy, such as expressing appreciation for the conversation, exchanging contact information for future follow-up, or gracefully transitioning to the next topic or interaction.
  10. Practice, Practice, Practice: Like any skill, mastering the art of small talk requires practice and persistence. Seize every opportunity to engage in conversations with diverse individuals, whether it’s at social events, professional networking functions, or everyday encounters in your community.
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By implementing these strategies and approaches, you can enhance your ability to make small talk with anyone, anywhere, and cultivate meaningful connections that enrich your personal and professional life. Remember, small talk is not just about filling silences; it’s about forging genuine connections and fostering relationships that endure beyond the conversation itself. So, go ahead, initiate that conversation, and watch as new opportunities and connections unfold before you.

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Imagine that you’re attending your first international conference. You’ve signed in at the welcome table, dutifully affixed your name tag to your shirt, and stepped into the ballroom designated for the evening’s networking event. You are all set to meet new global colleagues in your industry, but as you linger hesitantly by the punch bowl, you realize that there’s just one problem: You aren’t sure how to strike up a conversation with a stranger from a different culture.

This poses a significant dilemma. You don’t want to be a wallflower and miss out on the networking you traveled here to do, but you don’t want to be awkward or off-putting, either.

Meet-and-greet conversations can be uncomfortable, even in our own cultures. However, they can feel especially daunting when you’re paired with strangers from different cultures, like in the scenario above. In advance of a networking event, you may not know who will be present or what people from other cultures’ preferred conversational styles might be, and you may feel anxious to protect your professional image and avoid cultural faux pas. In these situations, you need a practical, adaptable conversational toolkit that you can deploy spontaneously.

And our research with more than 100 professionals from around the world suggests that the techniques in this toolkit look a lot like small talk.

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This might surprise you, especially if you’ve heard that small talk is typical among Americans but not, for example, among Germans. These claims may be accurate or actionable in clear-cut cultural contexts — for example, an American working in Germany would need to be aware of and adapt to the dominant local style. However, blanket assumptions like these are less helpful in diverse, global business contexts where open-ended mixing and mingling with people from a variety of cultures is part of your job. In this setting, light and introductory-style conversations (what some of us know as “small talk”) can be very helpful, and even necessary.

It’s one thing to recognize that small talk is a quasi-universal tool for initiating conversations with strangers from different cultures, for building a quick rapport, and for planting the seeds of deeper relationships — it’s quite another to actually do it. To help you more effectively master the art of small talk, in this article, we’ll present a mindset for how to think about small talk and a series of behaviors for how to do small talk.

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Mindset: How to think about small talk

There is something of a paradox when it comes to small talk, and it’s that you need to anticipate cultural differences without getting trapped in a labyrinth of incompatible rules. Here are two points to keep in mind when thinking about small talk:

1. Your country’s norms aren’t universal — but neither are anyone else’s.

You are right to suspect that what works inside your own country might not be typical elsewhere. Indeed, our interviews revealed a broad spectrum of norms around who could make small talk with whom, which topics are considered appropriate to discuss, and how long a conversation should last.

A professional from Jordan joked that the local standard could better be called “long talk” or “big talk,” as it involved lengthy, meandering conversations over tea and sweets. Meanwhile a Chinese professional cautioned that inside China, shooting the breeze with your superiors could make you look “empty headed.” A Brazilian interviewee declared that she’d feel comfortable talking about practically anything with anyone, while people in many other countries like France and South Korea said that they would save small talk for those they already know.

For global professionals embarking on a networking opportunity, this means that: a) your own norms aren’t “the norm” everywhere but also, b) by extension, there’s no objectively correct way to engage when you’re in a space that includes people from numerous countries.

2. Aim for a human connection.

It might feel overwhelming to engage with so many different styles of communication at a single event, but remember that you aren’t networking with countries, you’re networking with people. And individual people are always going to be somewhat surprising and idiosyncratic, whether it’s due to their own personalities or other elements — what we call their unique “spice blend” of experience and other cultural influences.

As a result, the person you’re interacting with may turn out to be exactly what you expected, or the complete opposite. For example, we interviewed Germans who loved making small talk with strangers (delighting in how novel and outside their comfort zone it felt). We also found Americans who cringed at the idea of small talk, preferring to scroll on their phone over making chitchat with strangers. And we found people who swore they’d never engage in a certain behavior at home, but who had learned to comfortably activate it in an international work setting. For global professionals, this suggests that you can’t truly anticipate what a person will be like until you say hello.

Behaviors: How to Do Small Talk

Since national and cultural norms are not as sticky as you might expect in a mixed global business setting, how can you actually get a conversation started with an unknown colleague?

1. Use commonalities and your environment.

Commonalities are like the bricks that build a bridge toward another person — and in global business settings, you may have more in common than you think! For example, in our opening story, you have something very specific in common with everyone else in the ballroom: You are all at the conference. Given this basic commonality, you might break the ice with a stranger by asking them questions about the conference: What brought them to the event, what sessions they are interested in attending, do they plan to listen to the keynote later, is this their first time attending this conference, and so on. You also have the conference city in common and could use that as a jumping-off point: Have they visited Singapore before? Do they have any recommendations about what to see during free time? And so on. Or you could use the conference to explore areas of professional overlap. For example, if it is a medical conference, are you both doctors or hospital administrators? If it is a project management conference with a technology focus, are you both engineers?

A related strategy is to comment on something in your immediate environment — something that you have in common at the moment because you can both see it. For example, you might remark on the hotel that is hosting the conference, the ostentatious lobby chandelier, the depressingly drab ballroom, or the completely flavorless coffee. Similarly, you could comment on something you can both see but that pertains to them. Perhaps they’re wearing a backpack with a distinctive maple leaf sticker. You could ask, “Is that a Canadian sticker? Are you by chance from Canada?”

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In the end, it doesn’t really matter if they plan to attend every session, if they like the lobby art, or if they’re from Canada — it’s that these are all opening salvos for a potential conversation. Just make sure that when they reply, you’re listening. Not only will it encourage them to continue engaging with you, but it will also suggest additional material to help carry the conversation forward. For example, perhaps when you ask about Canada, they mention that they’re from Toronto, which happens to be where you spent a recent family vacation. Now the conversation can build steam, as you each know a tiny yet valuable detail about each other.

2. Ask open-ended questions.

Another tool in your small talk arsenal is the open-ended question. We often don’t pay particular attention to the way we phrase the questions we ask. However, small differences in phrasing can have a surprisingly big impact on the way conversations develop. A closed-ended question would be: “Do you like the conference?” The person could elaborate, but they could also simply say yes or no, and while that’s not terrible, you haven’t made progress.

In contrast, imagine asking them: “What do you think of the conference so far?” This subtle change in phrasing opens up a wide range of potential answers. Now they might respond that the conference is much better this year, and you can ask why that is. Or maybe they talk about how there are a few great speakers or sessions they’ve attended, and then you can ask them what they found compelling about them. Or they might confess that they’re jet-lagged, and you might ask where they’re from. The key is that different conversational opportunities and knowledge about this person are now available to you simply because of how you phrased the question.

3. Share something about yourself.

Another small talk strategy for building rapport is to share “semi-personal” information. When you share semi-personal information — something about you that is not too private — you remove some of the guesswork for the other person and allow them to feel like they’re getting to know you. (Remember, they’re trying to figure out how to talk to you, too.) When you offer your unique perspective, reveal some “likes” or “dislikes,” or sprinkle in biographical details (like that you’re originally from Jamaica) — this can bring the conversation to life and encourage reciprocation, where the other person can feel comfortable sharing something as well.

For example, Andy experienced the power of sharing semi-personal information when teaching in an executive education program for a large South Korean corporation several years ago. During lunch in the cafeteria, the only available seat was next to a Korean participant, who started dozing off at the table. When Andy sat down, the person popped up, seemingly embarrassed. He apologized, saying that he was a new father and quality sleep was now rare. For Andy, that detail was a great entrée to a conversation, because Andy too had a newborn and was also suffering from sleeplessness. They ended up having a great conversation that sparked a professional relationship — all because of small talk.

4. Explore various angles of a topic.

Sometimes, small talk is a one-on-one thing. But in other times, groups suddenly materialize and you get trapped in a conversation that doesn’t necessarily interest you. While you can always politely excuse yourself, you might also search for aspects of the topic that you do care about. Imagine that the conversation turns to wine and you don’t care about wine — or alcohol at all. Does that mean you’re out of luck when it comes to small talk? Not necessarily. What if you are interested in how people make, store, or sell wine? Or the history or economics of winemaking? Maybe you’re curious about why certain wines are clear and others dark. Is it the grapes? The production process? Both? The key is to find a part of the topic you are authentically interested in — just enough to chime in and participate.

5. Just say “hello.”

While the above approaches suggest ways to initiate a conversation, a final tool is to simply say hello, especially if you find small talk hard to navigate. A Polish woman did this to Melissa at a conference in Poland. During a coffee break, she walked up, shook her hand, stated her name, and said that she would like to get better acquainted. She and Melissa ended up having lunch at a nearby restaurant and stayed in touch for several years — all without talking about the weather. For some people, this might be too forward, but it’s a reminder that small talk is a means to an end, and you can customize how you get there.

. . .

Networking in a global business context may feel perilous, but in our experience, it also can be manageable and even enjoyable. The key is to frame your task as getting acquainted with people — and you can do that by focusing on similarities, sharing something about yourself, noticing something about the other person, asking open-ended questions, or even simply saying hello. In the end, it doesn’t really matter precisely what you say but that you connect, period.


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