A client of mine is a professional woman from Japan who lives and works in Australia. She has a good job in a cultural organisation and she took me on as a coach because, as she said, “I have problem with my English.”
Well — she really doesn’t. She speaks carefully, grammatically, and is easy to understand After we discussed her situation at work and which areas she felt presented challenges, we realised that she had a harder time with small talk than she did with English grammar: She could easily perform the technical parts of her job, but the social aspects of it baffled her. “I am Japanese,” Yuna (not her name) said. “In my country, we are used to being very polite. We don’t like to talk about ourselves. When I am having lunch with my Australian colleagues, I do not always understand what I should say and what I should not say. And their humour. . !” She laughed a little and shook her head. “I do not always understand,” she said candidly. “And I know it is important to get along with my colleagues. I am not sure what to do.”
Yuna is right. Success in the workplace is based so much more than on simply how well we do our jobs. People bond over shared humour, shared conversation, and most of it seemingly trivial: small talk.
What is small talk? Malinowski, a famous anthropologist, first wrote about it in 1923.1 Small talk, he said, is talk that binds us together. While the topics that constitute small talk may seem trivial, its real importance lies in its actual function: to forge bonds amongst us.
All work talk and no small talk can be detrimental to your career.
Brett Nelson of Forbes lists six reasons why small talk is very important.2 The first reason he gives: you never know where small talk will take you. It only takes a little investment of your time (and the possibility of a bruised ego) to connect with someone. You never know.
It also makes you feel better, and makes you smarter. (Nelson cites serious research supporting these points.)
Not only that: mastering small talk can make you more productive.
Social scientists from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, have been researching office communication worldwide. Their research has shown that small talk is crucial in forging fruitful ties with colleagues. Without those ties, work does not get done as effectively. 3
Yet the sad fact is that many people just hate small talk. They would rather get their teeth pulled than listen to an interchange on Australian footie.
Next time—some tips on how you can become a small talk expert.
I am a coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area who specialises in the communications needs of executives who are non-native speakers of English. I believe in helping people find their stories through great pronunciation, vocal work, storytelling, and active listening.
Remember: “It’s your story. Get it right.”
1 Malinowski, B. “The problem of meaning in primitive languages,” in Ogden, C. & Richards, I., The Meaning of Meaning. London” Routledge, 1923.