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The Value of Small Talk for Work and Business in New Zealand

As an introvert, socialising and networking do not necessarily come naturally to me, even when I’m speaking in my native language. It’s probably no surprise then that memories of my past efforts to make small talk in a foreign language still haunt me many years later. Fortunately, I also have some very fond memories of bonding with colleagues and clients through regular informal chats, and I have a deep appreciation for the role of small talk in business and the workplace.

I briefly alluded to the importance of small talk in my last article on New Zealand’s workplace culture. In this article we’re going to look at the topic in more depth, and I’ll provide some conversation advice and useful language for getting started. 

Why we need our informal office chats

While researching the topic, I was interested to read the findings of a study carried out by Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies. The Language in the Workplace Project team studied real interactions in New Zealand workplaces and discovered that small talk serves several important functions. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team found that small talk is used to construct, maintain and strengthen interpersonal relations between colleagues. Interestingly, the team also found that New Zealand workplace talk often moves rapidly back and forth between small talk and core business talk throughout the working day, so this is something to be mindful of. 

An example of when this might occur is when small talk is used to ‘soften’ a directive. One staff member might approach another and open with a light-hearted comment or question before providing an instruction or delivering a reminder of a deadline that needs to be met. In other countries, (and in fact in some New Zealand workplaces) the small talk used before directives are given might be dismissed as unnecessary ‘fluff’, but the reality is that it is quite common in New Zealand.

Why making small talk at social events is worth the effort

While socialising for work is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, it’s generally worth making an effort to do this now and again. Making small talk with others at a work function can help you connect with people who you might be able to reach out to for support or advice in the future. In fact, research has shown that one thing that many successful business people share is their ability to engage in small talk with people they don’t know. 

We all know about the importance of trust in any relationship, and small talk at a conference or function is a great way to start building this. In cases where you do make a good initial connection with someone, it’s often a good idea to follow up with them briefly via an email or through a platform like LinkedIn. We’ll look at written communication in a future article.

The art of good conversation

If you haven’t yet seen Celeste Headlee’s enlightening and highly entertaining TED talk entitled 10 ways to have a better conversation, I highly recommend it, regardless of your English level. Celeste is an award-winning journalist and she explains that one of the most important things you can do in any conversation is to enter it with the expectation that you can learn something. Then, when you are in conversation, simply be present. Listen to what the other person is saying and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by your phone, by other people in the room or by your own thoughts. In other words, ‘go with the flow’ of the conversation. Among other useful advice, Celeste also suggests:

  • Use open-ended questions — These are questions that can’t be answered easily with a ‘yes’, ‘no’ or equally short answer. Remember the 5 Ws and an H? They’re great for asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions will elicit interesting answers.
  • Don’t worry about details — If you can’t remember exactly when, where or why something happened, it really doesn’t matter. 
  • Be brief — When it’s your turn to talk, don’t speak for too long and don’t talk too much about yourself.

Now, while Celeste offers some great advice, it’s important to remember that she makes a living from interviewing people, so she’s expected to ask a lot of questions. If you get too ‘carried away’ asking questions in a conversation, the person you are speaking to might feel somewhat interrogated. Be prepared for some ‘give and take’ in the process.

Language help

A few useful expressions for getting started:

Sometimes the biggest challenge in making small talk is initiating the conversation. A simple question like, Mind if I join you? will suffice for a start. If you’re at a function or conference, you can follow up with: What do you think of the venue?;  What did you think of the last speaker? or How are you enjoying the conference/function? These questions can ‘set the ball rolling’. 

Idiomatic language used in this article:

Fluff: Something trivial or unimportant

Not my cup of tea: Not something I like or am interested in

Go with the flow: Be relaxed and accepting of a situation and don’t try to control or change it

To get carried away: To lose self-control

Give and take: Compromise and/or cooperation for the benefit of everyone involved

Set the ball rolling: To set an activity in motion

Next steps

If you found this advice useful and you would like to hear more about our 1-to-1 language coaching services for business and workplace success in New Zealand, why not book a free consultation here. I’d love to have a chat about how we can tailor a course specifically for your needs.

Author: Eli Briasco




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