Small talk: why it matters and how you can get better at it

Corporate Partners Christmas Reception

It’s that time of year when many of us will be going to Christmas or holiday parties, resulting in the inevitable need to small talk with a partner’s colleagues, neighbours we don’t know very well and many others. Does this kind of social gathering fill you with dread? We asked Professor Ingrid Piller from the Department of Linguistics for tips to get you through this season.


Some people think that language is all about communicating information. Nothing could be further from the truth: another important role of language is to build relationships. One type of communication that is almost exclusively geared towards establishing and maintaining relationships is small talk. That means small talk is much more than the exchange of platitudes it may seem. It’s actually an important form of social glue.

If you dread making small talk with (relative) strangers, consider these three tips:

Find common-ground topics

The weather makes a great small talk topic because everyone knows about it and is affected by it. However, unless you are chatting with a climate scientist, the weather probably will exhaust itself pretty quickly. When that happens, you want to move on to similar common-ground topics. Anything that is in your immediate physical or institutional environment is ideal. If that fails, topics from the media (news, sports, celebrities, TV shows, etc.) can be used to establish common ground.

Use open questions – sparingly

In order to establish common ground, you have to find out about the other person’s interests and concerns. The way to do that is to ask open-ended questions that allow your interlocutor to talk at some length rather than just respond with “yes/no” or a simple statement of fact. However, don’t go into interviewer mode without contributing about yourself. Remember the key to all relationships is reciprocity.

Be inclusive

Remember that event where you knew no one and were a complete outsider? And were tense and nervous and didn’t know how to start a conversation? And then the relief you felt when someone who seemed a member of the in-group came up to you and talked to you? The initiative of that stranger set you on a journey from becoming an outsider to an insider. Small talk is easier if you are insider and on your home turf. Now that you are established at Macquarie, be the kind of person who makes a point of starting a conversation with any shy newcomers.





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  1. The easiest way to look at it is to think how you feel when you start to trust someone during a conversation and wonder why this is happening. Then you realise the other person has found you have something in common. If you hear something the other person says that you find interesting then you might ask a question about that. It is all about gaining trust but once gained it is also easy to loose.

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