Those Americans sure do talk a lot, don’t they?

American Small Talk

It may be called small talk, but it fills a huge space. Some internationals, or foreign professionals working in the USA, want to know how to be part of the casual and friendly conversation at work, the small talk. Not being part of the small talk might leave some people feeling, well, a bit small, which is to say left out of the conversation, and that’s not good. So what is there to do about it?

Now and then people ask me how they can become part of the conversation at work. A typical question could be something like “How can I be part of the conversation?” Or someone might ask, “What should I say?”

Internationals may observe that Americans seem to talk a lot, more than people talk, that is, where they come from. This sort of communication behavior, sometimes called small talk, is part of American culture. Talking a lot, and sometimes talking a lot about nothing that seems to be very significant or important, is something that some internationals working in the US may find odd or strange. Nonetheless, people, that is to say internationals who are my clients in the Boston area, sometimes ask me how they can become part of the conversation.

Becoming part of the conversation means talking to colleagues while waiting for a meeting to start in a conference room. Becoming part of the conversation means talking during lunch and not just listening. But listening is the key. If you’re already listening and paying attention, you’re on the right track. Here are a few tips and suggestions for becoming part of the conversation at work.

1. Listen for something in the other person’s conversation or story that you can, also, relate to in some way. What comes to mind when you hear someone say “this”? Comment on whatever “this” is.

2. Listen for anything that you could have in common with someone. If you find that you share a common interest, talk about it. Don’t ask what the point is in doing this. There doesn’t have to be a reason for it. If you want to be part of the conversation at work, the small talk, this is one way to do it. It could be pointless to talk about certain things to you, but to Americans it’s perfectly normal, and it’s their way of being social, being friendly, establishing rapport, and, in a way, cultivating good relationships.

3. Listen for information gaps in what someone says. In other words, whatever anyone is talking about, take an interest in it and become curious. Ask a question or two. Ask for more information. Taking an interest in what your colleagues talk about and are interested in helps build good relationships at work, and it makes you part of the conversation.

4. If someone is telling a story, listen for how you might be able to relate to it some way. Someone could be talking about something that they did, something that happened to them, something that someone else did, or something that happened to someone they know. If someone’s story reminds of something that has to do with you, or someone’s story calls to mind something you remember, then, maybe, you should talk about it. The key is that it has to be relevant enough in some way to what the other person is talking about. Become part of the conversation by letting your colleagues know, somehow, that you can relate to what they say.

5. If someone talks about something that happened to them, then talk about how you can relate to it because something similar happened to you. Ask yourself this question: Does this person’s story remind me of anything in life that I can talk about? If the answer is yes, then listen for the “right time” to jump in and become part of the conversation. Be attentive to what’s going on in the conversation. Listen for pauses and breaks. These are cues to help you know when you can say something and be part of the conversation.

It takes practice and a little time, but if you listen and pay attention, you can become part of the conversation at work. And, by the way, if you’re American and you work with internationals, or foreign professionals, notice when people are quiet, or notice when they’re too quiet. It could be that they want to be part of the conversation but just don’t know how to start. Say something. Take it upon yourself to invite someone into the conversation. It’s not a lot of work, it doesn’t cost anything, and you’ll be helping someone. If you don’t do that already, do you think you can start?