Sun, 06 Mar 2005


The fine art of chatting: Small talk has to be learned

Andreas Heimann, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Munich, Germany

It sounds trivial, but in fact the art of making small talk has to be learned. Those able to engage others, even those they are not acquainted with, effortlessly in conversation are at a considerable advantage.

At work, this ability can open doors that otherwise would have remained closed. The ability to chat without embarrassment is a valuable social skill.

Five minutes of unimportant conversation about the weather, the tailbacks on the motorway or the fortunes of the local football team can provide the basis for more serious interaction.

"Unfortunately, small talk has a negative image," says Susanne Seitz, a Stuttgart psychologist, but she believes that chatting over unimportant matters is an ideal warm-up for the more intensive phase of any dialogue.

"Small talk means drawing attention to oneself and making as good an impression as possible," Seitz says.

"But it is a two-way street. One is at the same time checking out what makes one's interlocutor tick," she adds. The point is to find areas of mutual interest.

And in the professional sphere, the ability to make small talk is important. "Those who have mastered this art appear more approachable to colleagues and superiors," Seitz says.

Being ill-at-ease in this respect is a disadvantage. "When meeting the boss in the lift, one should try to initiate a conversation with him in a natural way, rather than falling into awkward silence," says Munich psychologist Stephan Lermer, who has made the study of small talk his speciality.

"Small talk helps to establish a basis of confidence, in particular when one does not know the person," says Frank Naumann, a Berlin psychologist specializing in communication.

But he acknowledges that problems can crop up when initiating a conversation.

"At parties it is usually quite simple. One greets the other guests, introduces oneself, and then asks an introductory question," Naumann says.

Those answering with a curt "Yes" or "No" make themselves appear ill-at-ease, Naumann says. "Open questions that encourage others to tell something of themselves are much better," he adds.

There are rules with regard to small talk topics. "Launching into an attack on someone else is taboo," Lermer says. "That is seen as bad manners and seldom brings a positive response."

In general one should stick to positive themes for small talk, and if possible avoid highly controversial themes where there could be a strong difference of opinion.

"Disease is not a good theme," says Lermer, as initiating a conversation on illness often reduces many to silence in response.

Small-talk experts are against political topics for beginning a conversation with a relative stranger, as this too can force others to take up strongly differing opinions.

On the other hand, the weather is a handy theme, even though scarcely original. "Talking about the weather never strikes the wrong note, and everyone has something to say about it," Lerner says.

Naumann noted that it is one easy step from sunshine and wind conditions to travel and holidays. "Almost everyone has positive associations with this," he says.

Other useful topics are work, family and hobbies, while religion and personal problems are grouped with politics and illness as non-starters.

One German author has even compiled a list of small talk themes for the advanced, providing brief information on history, philosophy and the arts in a book aimed at managers who find themselves talking to strangers at meetings and conferences.

Not everyone can become adept at small talk. Some simply cannot think of anything, while others lack the necessary confidence. "But one can learn how to do it," says Seitz. "This is the case even with shy people."

Lermer recommends the "Three Cs": Await your chance, gather your courage and reveal your charm.

The psychologist recommends practicing at bus stops, theater foyers and queues at government offices.

"Smiling makes small talk much easier. Whoever has tried it a couple of times with success can build on this to reduce shyness," he says.

In the professional world, small talk can be used with a clear purpose in mind. Before an important meeting, one can try to find out about the person one will be talking to so that there is a topic ready to kick off the conversation.

"Having a topic ready that you know the other person is interested in helps to get going," Seityz says. "And chatting then helps to make the meeting more friendly and cordial," she says.

Naumann says someone initiating a conversation can quickly gauge whether attempts at making conversation are successful or not from the reaction of the other person. "If your interlocutor remains silent, then something is going badly wrong," he says.