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Small talk is not so small

small talk cartoonA 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.



Learning to Use Free Association to Speak with Anyone (including future employers and mentors)

In two recent blogs, I discussed how using empathy can help you in most social interactions.

In the first blog (https://eloquentenglishsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/04/how-to-use-free-association-to-build-a-bridge-in-socialising-and-creating-bonds/), I wrote about the importance of finding the other person’s “why” —his or her passion—in order to forge powerful bridges with that individual.

The second blog (https://eloquentenglishsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/06/537/) took this “why” approach and applied it to a specific job interview.

There is one theme that binds together these two blogs: The most important step you can do in having meaningful conversations is by not focusing on yourself and immediately listing all the wonderful things you can offer. Rather, work on understanding the other individual and determining what is important to him or her, and then convince that person that you share similar passions. (If this is true; if it is not true, do you want to be working with that person?)

You do this through having real curiosity about others; through associating one idea with another; by using you own general knowledge to elicit more information.

Here are some examples.

Setting: You’re speaking with an important client over coffee, and the client mentions that he is from Holland. What can you say here? What do you know about Holland? (Hopefully, you know it’s in Europe.) Quickly pull up categories that could be used to find out more about that person.

The graphic, below, would show the type categories of knowledge I have about Holland:

Holland free assoc




With these associations, I would ask these type questions (look at the associations starting at “noon” and going clockwise around the circle):

  • I’ve always admired the art of Rembrandt, Vermeer (etc.) and am dying to visit the Rijksmuseum. Have you been?

  • I just read an article about global warming and I understand that Holland is below sea level. Is global warming a threat to your country? How is it handling that threat?

  • I love to garden and have seen amazing pictures of your country in the spring with all those beautiful flowers. Is it as gorgeous as I think it is? Where do you go to see all the bulbs in bloom? When is the best time?

  • Pardon my ignorance, but I know very little about the Dutch language (and you speak English so well). I’ve heard it spoken a few times and it sounds a little like German; is Dutch a Germanic language? Is it hard to learn?

You’d be surprised at how much you really DO know about a topic; you simply need to learn how to quickly retrieve that knowledge to ask questions.

Why bother with this? You really don’t care about the Netherlands; you don’t give a toss about whether the language is related to German or not. Well, here are two things to think about:

  • Everything can be interesting for its own sake; why not learn something new just for the sake of learning something new??
  • This type questioning shows people that you are interested in them and want to understand what is important to them. THIS technique should be your foundation of communication, for people crave being understood, being “listened-to.” Once you have established this foundation of empathy, you can build a relationship by telling them about you and what you can offer.

Let’s look at one more situation.  You’re in a conference and it’s break time; you’re chatting with a CEO of a tech start-up that excites you and you’d like to know more about it. You know several things about this company, and now you have the chance to make an impression. You do this best by asking targeted questions about the company, not by talking about yourself. (In this association exercise, I will demonstrate my own lack of knowledge about tech start-ups, but wanted to use a more technical situation, so bear with me:)

Start up free assoc


If I were in this situation, I would ask these type questions (again, start with the “noon” position and go clockwise):

  • I understand you are doing very exciting things with (mention whatever platform, software or hardware it is…) I’ve been exploring that area, too, and would enjoy hearing your experience using it.

  • I just read an article about your company trying to improve (fill in the blank) and to meet this social / technical need (whatever it might be). In my spare time, I’ve been working on similar things. Tell me more about what your company wants to achieve.

  • Do you have much competition in this area? What do you hope to accomplish in five or ten years—or is it too early to be even thinking about that?

  • I understand you have a background in (fill in the blank) and that you got your idea for this start up by (fill in the blank). That’s fascinating—I’d love to hear more about how you started your company, and what were the main obstacles you had to overcome.

If you can start using this technique of using your own varied knowledge to build bridges with others, soon they will be asking about you. And then it will be your turn to shine.



I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: 

www.eloquentenglish.com. I offer workshops in public speaking,

self-presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.

Email me at arashap@eloquentenglish.com

Remember: “It’s your story. Get it right.”














Free Associating: Using active listening to nab the job interview

I’ll start this blog with a story that relates to the last blog I posted, in which I stated that:

  • Learning to listen and discover the other person’s “why” for doing what they do is significant because
  • With this information, you can align your “why” with their “why”. Then the real interaction and mutual benefit can take place.


I did this when I was living in Singapore. I had received a call from the assistant of a very high-ranking government official: I was being considered as a public speaking coach for this gentleman; might we be able to discuss this project soon? He would like to visit me in my home.

Eeek. I also discovered that this official was involved in government security; when I told my friends who this person was, they freaked out. “You do realize you are being observed right now,” they said, “and ALL your records are being gone over with a fine-tooth comb.” They then ran away so they wouldn’t be seen in public with me.

Well. I sighed, cleaned my apartment and waited for the meeting. At exactly the appointed time, a black limo glided into view and there was a knock on my door.

A very mild-looking, trim man came in. He was modest in demeanour and soft-spoken—not a scary individual at all. He quickly glanced around the apartment and made a small nod—of approval, I thought. I invited him to sit and offered him tea, which he politely declined.

So what happened? Did he ask me piercing questions about my past, trying to sniff out any infractions I might have committed? Absolutely not. We spoke about Singapore history, the effectiveness of many of its policies, the social problems the country still faced and possible solutions. We did not discuss any business interaction, and I did not rush in to reassure him that I could be a fabulous coach. At the end of the interview he smiled, shook my hand and said, “We’ll be in touch.”

Within a few hours, I had this man as a client.

What happened?

#1 (of course), my apartment was pristinely clean—reflecting the respect due an honoured guest

#2, I demonstrated to him that, though I was an outsider living in Singapore, I was an interested outsider. I knew key things about its history, I spoke with sincere admiration about many of the island’s accomplishments and yet also demonstrated I was not blind to some of the social problems its citizens faced.

#3, I listened carefully to what he said, asked him to clarify some of the things he mentioned, and made it clear that I was honoured to learn from him.

Basically, I let this individual know that I appreciated living in Singapore and was committed to living there and understanding as much about it as I could. I cared about the country and communicated my concern and interest.



This government official and I shared this interest. That was enough for him; I got the job.

In the next blog, I’ll discuss how I used active listening to draw the person out. I’ll examine the bits of that conversation and what made me get the gig.

I’m owner of the Melbourne-based company Eloquent English, and I can help you find YOUR story: in a CV, a job interview, a website, annual report or a presentation.


“It’s your story. Get it right.”

Eight Things Asian Women Should Know about Public Speaking and Speaking in General

“Asian women, ” I hear you say; “you can’t write that, that’s racial profiling!”  Oh, I’m sorry if you feel that way!

*Ding ding!!* Oops, you see, I used the word “sorry” right away. That’s the problem, that’s what women do–they apologize too much. That’s one of the problems.

And you’re right, this blog isn’t just about Asian women. But I lived in Singapore for more than a decade, and I’ve observed that women from various parts of Asia–Singapore, Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam–are especially vulnerable to certain pitfalls regarding speaking, both in public and in general. These days, many of these women are dealing with people from all over the globe. So this blog is especially devoted to them.

I’ve observed how extremely polite women can be when speaking to others. I have nothing against politeness, but my first bit of advice: get rid of some of the politeness. You can do that and NOT be a bitch. It takes some work, but it can be done. Remember this, Asian women: you are tiny compared to bigger, often obese Westerners. If you are speaking to a bunch of Australians, for example, there’s a good chance many of them will be a little overweight to obese. You will dwindle away to a speck surrounded by those mounds of flesh. It’s real important that your voice compensates. That doesn’t mean yelling. It means learning to speak in a measured, controlled manner.

Unfortunately, it’s still a man’s world, though a lot of progress has been made. Please note that many men will be quick to overlook women if they appear too reticent, and–this is the killer–men will put women down if women seem too authoritative. You can’t win!

So what can you do?

Tip #1: Do not speak too fast. Often, women (and men, but they’re not penalized as much for it) talk quickly when they get excited, nervous, or passionate about something. Resist the urge. Speak in measured tones.

Tip #2: Do not speak in a high-pitched voice. Many of us associate high-pitched voices with, well, nagging wives or nagging mothers. It’s true.

A famous piece of music, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” (Mussorsky/Ravel) musically depicted various scenes, including women shopping at a marketplace. Their voices were imitated using high-pitched, rapid tones: “The bitching women of the bustling market place gabble furiously in music of astonishing virtuosity,” writes Paul Serotsky.(1)

Gabble. See that? Ducks gabble! Geese gabble! And Serotsky isn’t even writing about women per se! If you speak in a high-pitched voice and if you speak too rapidly, you’ll be seen as a GABBLER, an ineffectual whiner of a woman. Don’t let that happen.

Tip #3: Stress words and individual syllables in words. Learn how to do this and lose your own stress when you speak to others. Many Asian languages are syllable timed, not stress timed. That means Asians often stress individual syllables, whereas English speakers stress certain parts of words.

Let’s take the sentence: I told you to buy me a bunch of red roses.

When Singaporeans, for example, speak standard English, the effect is like rapid gunfire, so they would say the above sentence thusly:

I-told-you-to- buy- me-a-bunch-of-red-roses.

All the words would have equal value. This can actually lead to aural (hearing) fatigue, for it doesn’t add emphasis to any part of the phrase. Indeed, many people unfamiliar with the accent might think that person speaking sounds like a computer.

A native English speaker would utter the sentence “I told you to buy me a bunch of red roses”  like this:

told you to buy me a bunch of red roses.

Different parts of the sentence are emphasized; it’s easier to listen to and comprehend.

Tip #4: The pause can be your best friend. When you speak, take the liberty of pausing for real emphasis. Not only should you emphasize certain words within a phrase, but think about pregnant (so to speak) pauses. They can work wonders. If you have the confidence to pause, the audience will sit up and take note.

Tip #5: Vocal tone. Think of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech”. It’s been played to death because its rhetoric and delivery are truly breathtaking. Imagine King uttering his words in a droning monotone; he never would’ve ignited millions of people to demand what should be theirs (social equality, in case you don’t know). Learn the artistic capacity of your voice. Play with it.

Tip #6: Don’t apologize (as I did with “sorry …” at the beginning of the blog) or put yourself down. Often, women worldwide will demurely murmur apologetic bits into their conversations: “I know I shouldn’t say this, but . . . ” “I’m not really sure . . . ” Men don’t do it. Don’t do it. Period. (In fact a Pantene hair colour ad actually had women saying “sorry!” all the time, and then switched to showing powerful women who didn’t do that–see this link here: Don’t say “sorry!” all the time.

Tip #7: Question tags. “I really enjoyed that talk, didn’t you?” That gives the other person the opportunity to expound away. And, usually, the woman will listen, give feedback, say something else. And the man? He will overlook what she said and expound again. This is an unequal dialogue; it’s not a dialogue, it’s a monologue. Nip it in the bud.

Tip #8: When you laugh, do not cover your mouth. PLEASE. You’re a grown woman. Showing humor is–just fine. You’re allowed.

I know this list should conform to the magic number 10, but never mind. Hope these tips are useful. If you have others you would like to add, feel free to leave them in the comments section.


(1) http://www.musicweb-international.com/Programme_Notes/mussorgsky_pictures.htm