Small Talk

Networking 2: In Defence of Small Talk



In my first blog on networking for musicians I explained how networking needn’t be smarmy and insincere. At heart it is simply having conversations, preferably ones where you show a genuine interest in the other person. To network effectively you need to be having conversations with many people. Usually you won’t know these people well – if you do it’s not really networking, it’s catching up with a friend.

Talking to new people involves a lot of small talk. Some people find that difficult. Small talk tends to be light and superficial. You might spend a whole afternoon engaged in casual conversation with many people and not feel you’ve made a significant connection with anyone. You long for a meaningful conversation like you have with good friends and decide that small talk is a waste of time.

Small talk is not a waste of time

Don’t fall into the trap of dismissing and avoiding small talk. It serves a very important purpose. Small talk acts as a kind of social buffer, a neutral territory where we can engage with one another in a non-threatening manner.

If you meet someone for the first time and they immediately started telling you about their troubled relationship with their partner or a serious medical condition you would probably find it unusual. Likewise you’re unlikely to disclose your deepest, darkest secrets to someone who is almost a stranger. It takes time and trust before we share these things with each other.

When we open up to someone you we put ourselves at risk of ridicule, rejection, disdain. We usually only do this with people we know well. With new people we need to avoid these sensitive areas. Small talk is perfect for this precisely because it is light and superficial.

Small talk is just the beginning

One of the mistakes people make is thinking there are two different types of talking – ‘small talk’ and ‘proper talk’. In networking situations that’s not the case. Small talk is the beginning of getting to know someone. It’s the opening stages of something that may develop in to a meaningful conversation. The move from small talk to more meaningful conversation is gradual. It’s not like flipping a switch.

Small talk is bland and trivial but if you pay attention you can learn a lot about someone from their small talk. They will also learn a lot about you. The things you learn will allow you to move the conversation to a slightly deeper, more personally relevant, level without coming straight out with intimate disclosures that aren’t appropriate at this stage in the relationship.

Moving beyond small talk

To move on from small talk, pay close attention to what people say. No matter the subject people will almost always mention something that reveals a little about themself. Even the blandest topic like the weather might offer some clue. If they say the rain means they don’t have to water the garden as much that’s a hint they might be green fingered. If they say the sun makes it enjoyable to walk the dogs it’s likely they’re a dog person. If cold weather has made made a long journey uncomfortable you could ask if they travel a lot, or where they were going.

Picking up on these disclosures are the beginning of getting to know someone better and moving beyond small talk. People tend to mention things that are at the forefront of their minds. That’s a good indication that it’s something they’re comfortable talking about. Of all the things they could have mentioned they chose (probably subconsciously) gardens / dogs / travel. Pick up on that and see if it provides fodder for further conversation.

Keeping your ears open for these little disclosures and using them to ask polite, perceptive follow up questions is the best way to get to know someone better. Once you find something that they open up about then you’re talking at a deeper level. Keep that going while listening out for further clues to other interests and opinions. Use these to continue the conversation and potentially take it even deeper. Don’t rush it, but stay aware.

It’s best to think of conversation as peeling off or unravelling layers. Small talk is the first layer. It serves an important protective purpose and it’s not a good idea to try to cut straight through it to get to the centre. That’s just too uncomfortable for most people.

Make sure you give as well as take

Now that you know this you can take advantage of it by dropping a few clues into your own small talk. You’re not just there to interrogate them. You should be offering little bits of information about yourself too. Conversation is about sharing information, not taking it.

If you casually mention something interesting to you the other person might pick up on it and ask you more. Don’t worry if they don’t. It might be they don’t spot it or that that topic doesn’t appeal to them. If you mention your new car and they’re not a car person they probably won’t pick up on it. Drop in a different topic at the next opportunity.

If you are successful at introducing your own topics make sure you don’t talk about yourself too much or for too long. Turn the conversation back round to the other person pretty quickly. Ask their thoughts, opinions or experiences on the subject. Don’t be a bore or a braggart. That won’t help you make a better connection.

Sun shining through clouds.
Cloud or silver lining?

It’s not just what they say…

You can learn more than you think. As well as paying attention to what someone says, notice how they say it. Even in small talk, peoples’ personalities shine through. Do the speak quickly and energetically? Are they slow and thoughtful? Do they seem positive and optimistic, negative and despondent, cynical and sarcastic? Tone of voice and the words people choose will tell you a lot.

For example, if you mention the heavy rain someone could reply “Yes, depressing isn’t it” or “I enjoy rain because I can curl up with a book and not feel I’m missing out on a sunny day.” The first response is gloomy and negative. If that’s the first thing that comes into that person’s mind when you mention rain then it’s likely they have a gloomy outlook on life. The second response is much more positive. They make the best of what might be a bad situation. It also dangles the clue that they enjoy reading which you can follow up on.

It’s dangerous to assume too much about someone from their first few answers in small talk. But it’s amazing how much you can learn and how often those initial observations prove to be right in the long run.

Make sure your own answers to small talk questions convey the impression you want to give. Think carefully before making negative or unkind observations unless you want people to think you are a negative or unkind person.

Get out there and talk to some people

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that small talk serves a valuable purpose and can be more useful than it seems. Next time you’re at an event with new people start making some small talk. Listen to what people say and how they say it. Pick up on clues and drop in some of your own. Eventually you’ll find it’s not small talk any more and you’re having a meaningful conversation about shared interests and things that are important to you. It was small talk that started the whole process off.


For more detail on the nuances of small talk The Fine Art of Small Talk by Debra Fine has a lot of good information. Also How to Talk to Anyone by Leil Lowndes has many invaluable tips, although some of the Americanisms might make you cringe a bit.

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