Small Talk, Big Deal

Let's be honest, small talk and Israelis are not a natural fit. As much as Israelis love to talk, they do not like to talk about nothing. Israelis will either make the conversation be about something or walk away from it. For an Israeli, small talk is basically a waste of time. This may work fine for Israelis at home, but if you want to succeed abroad or with international business partnerships, you need to master the art of small talk.

Business people speaking

What is Small Talk?

Many Israelis who are afraid of small talk don't actually know what it is. Let me first define small talk. Small talk is conversation that does not cover any 'real' business function, direct purpose or transaction. Small Talk is not conversation about business, personal life, or any real subject. Small talk is conversation about light topics.

"Safe" small talk topics are:

* The weather
* Music
* Television and film
* Sports
* Travel
* Food

To further clarify, because I know how much Israelis want real and meaningful conversation, the above list is meant to be the light version of each subject. Talking about the weather in small talk does NOT include discussing climate change, global warming or devastation of recent typhoons. Talking about the weather means saying things like, "Lovely weather we are having, don't you think?" or, "It sure has been rainy lately!" The same goes for every subject. That is to say, you should talk about light and positive aspects of the above topics.

For beginners at this game, small talk is ALWAYS positive. If, in the context of small talk, you are asked, "How was your journey to the conference?" and actually your journey was horrible – your car broke down or the train was severely delayed or unpleasant – you should still answer positively. A correct 'small talk' answer would be, "It was fine thank you, and yours?" I realize I have just instructed you to lie. You could also answer, "I've had better but I am happy to be here thank you for asking. How was yours?" The point being that however you answer, you should not go into negative details.

Let me give an example of the above that you will all have no doubt encountered, even in Israel and with other Israelis. I am going to assume that not every time in your life, or with every person, when asked, "How are you?" you have given a true and deep answer. If your friend or family member asks this question, you are likely to give a full and truthful answer. However, if (on the rare occasion it happens in Israel) you are asked that question by a sales person in a shop or over the phone by a telemarketer, you are likely to simply say, "I'm fine thanks." (Possibly you won't add the 'thanks' but I think you get my point.) I imagine you have given that response at times when things with you weren't really fine but you were not interested in telling that person your problems. Small talk extends that concept to entire conversations.

I have just said that for beginners small talk is always positive. If someone is a confident small talker, they will know how and when to add real elements to the conversation, including some that may be less positive than others. However, I would also interject here that a master of small talk will ALWAYS keep the conversation positive, light, funny and charming. Let me provide you with a master small talk response to a negative comment.

Comment: "It just doesn't stop raining! It's really rather miserable." (not the best small talk line but one easily heard)

Response: "Well, it keeps our fields green and our water supply stable I suppose!"

It would be easy to agree with the person's comment about the rain, and no doubt you feel the same way, but responding with a positive comment is likely to put a smile on the other's face and even produce a chuckle. Those are two highly desired outcomes of small talk.

Let's recap the definition of small talk. Small talk is conversation about pleasant and neutral subjects. The conversation is about positive aspects of those neutral subjects. Only neutral and positive opinions and comments are expressed during small talk.

I'm guessing your stomach is already turning! Now that we've got the painful subject of what small talk is out of the way, let's look at why it is used and what benefit it is to you, your career, and your company.

Female university student holding book, outdoors

Why is Small Talk Used?

Small talk is essential to socializing in new groups of people and to conducting business in Western countries and in English. I hope the following explanation of why it is used will help you to understand its function. Understanding its function, and your need to use it, should help motivate you to improve your small talk skills. Small talk is a social skill.

Small talk is usually used when first meeting new people both socially and professionally. In a professional setting, this will often be: before meetings with new clients or other professionals; at conferences; during breaks between meetings and presentations; on professional courses; or at any occasion when professionals meet when business is not directly being conducted. Small talk is an invaluable tool for understanding what kinds of people you are dealing with.

Unlike in Israel, professionals do not usually like to "get right down to business." If you have a meeting with new clients, people like to have a few moments of chat before starting the meeting or transaction. However, professionals do not want to get personal during this time. They do not intend to talk about personal relationships, religion, children, life experiences or absolutely anything personal. They also do not want to engage in topics that are likely to get heated or where people's opinions are likely to differ. This is also not the time they want to talk business – that comes in the actual meeting. This is a time where all people get a chance to chat, to talk a little about nothing. The benefit of doing this is that during the time of small talk, both sides start to get a feeling about the other. How people talk about nothing says a lot about them. What words do they use? What tone do they take? How do they smile? What is their laugh like? These are great indicators to understand what kind of person is in front of you without having to engage in personal or business matters.

Small talk becomes an important part of a business meeting. It allows both sides to prepare and adjust themselves to the other side before engaging in business discussions or transactions. One can gain a lot from small talk. By the end of five to ten minutes of small talk, one can usually gage the following about the other person:

• Are they a friendly person?
• Are they a serious person?
• Are they clued-in and have their finger on the pulse?
• Do they use a large vocabulary?
• Are they approachable or closed?
• Do they like you?
• Do you like them?

This is just a selection of attributes one can ascertain from small talk. Depending on the time and people, you may be able to learn more or less from small talk. Using this sort of nuanced information about a person can make the difference between an ok meeting and a hugely successful meeting.

Small talk at conferences or other events where professionals meet who are not planning on doing business at that time allows for professionals to meet one another face-to-face and get a sense of who a person is, again, without having to engage in personal or full-on business matters. This is a fantastic chance to make a good first impression with people in your field whom you may come across at a later date to do business with or work with.

Happy young male college students using digital tablet against building

Further, in Western countries and in English, people prefer to do business with people they like. This is true even if it means it will cost them more to business with friendly people than with people they don't really like. Professionals largely "like" people based on their time with them during small talk. Even after doing repeated business, it is unusual for professionals to get personal with their clients or other professionals in their field. Liking is not based on real friendships or how good the deal is (that is a category of its own – good deals), liking is based on small talk performance.

Coming from Seattle, and having worked in hi-tech, I have heard on numerous occasions about American companies that end up taking a worse deal for them just to work with Americans rather than Israelis because they found working with Israelis too harsh, pushy and unsocial. Israelis appreciate a no-nonsense approach to business. Israelis value their time. A good business deal is direct, quick and at the best price possible. Most Westerners prefer to have the deal be pleasant, friendly and at the best price possible. Westerners do not place speed of transaction as highly up the priority list as Israelis do. Israelis often get confused when meeting foreign professionals and see that the deal isn't happening straight away. They then wrongly presume that they should start getting personal. Personal questions during business encounters are highly offensive. Small talk is the key.

Successful small talk will be evidenced in that the professional walks away from the encounter thinking that he or she would enjoy going for a drink with the other person. This touches on another, somewhat related, element of social and professional life abroad that does not really exist in Israel – going for drinks. Most Israelis do not socialize with their colleagues, let alone with professionals in their field they are doing business with. It is only in the past decade or so that Israelis socialize with friends around alcohol. Most Westerners socialize largely around alcohol and further, go for drinks with colleagues, clients and others in their professional field regularly. Good small talk says that this person will be fun to have a drink with. Small talk is continued while drinking socially, although this is where the boundaries of small talk and real conversation can start to blend. Not always. Please check out the upcoming article on social drinking abroad for more on how to handle yourself in a pub, bar, or restaurant with new friends, colleagues or clients.

If you want professionals in your field to remember you, recommend you and, finally, do business with you, then you have to be able to handle yourself successfully in small talk. Small talk is the friendly side of business. Westerners like business to be friendly. Professionals do not want to have to open up personally to be able to talk about subjects other than the business at hand. At the same time, professionals want to know that there is a person on the other side of the conference table and not just a business machine. Successful small talk tells the other person or people that you are a friendly person who can socialize without talking shop and without getting personal or controversial. Small talk is a great social skill and it is an essential professional skill. You may find small talk boring but I hope you now see that it is not pointless. Part of mastering small talk is to make sure no one sees that you actually find the conversation about nothing boring, quite the opposite. You should engage in small talk with excitement and vigor!