The Art of Small Talk

Ah, small talk. One of us doesn't care for it (Dagy), and one really enjoys it (Judy). Regardless of one's preference, the art of making small talk is an essential business skill, and interpreters and translators are well advised to figure out how to talk to (almost) anyone. Here are some thoughts and tips about small talk:

  • Think positive. Many translators are quite introverted, but interpreters not so much! It can be scary to leave the comfort of your home office and go out into the world to, say, a networking event, which will require small talk. However, small talk isn't limited to networking events: you might have to chat with a client while waiting for the interpreting session to start or talk to a potential client who has requested a lunch meeting. In general, think positive. What's the worst that can happen? Nothing bad can really come out of this (other than that you might just not establish a connection, which is OK), so take a deep breath. Talking is easy, right? You can do it. And you are not the only person who feels awkward when doing this -- trust us, you are not alone. How's that for a pep talk?
  • Ask questions. Most people feel quite comfortable talking about themselves, so the way to get a conversation started is to ask some interested questions. Of course, it's a fine line between being interested and being nosy, so be sure not to cross the line. There are some topics that work well for most situations, especially in the US: where are you from; tell me about your business; I have heard about your company, and would like to know more; what's your alma mater; do you have any vacation plans, etc. Most of the time, conversation will develop quite naturally. In case it doesn't, that's fine, too. You must kiss some frogs.
  • Give a compliment. This works best if you are a woman and you are complimenting another woman, but can occasionally work in other constellations as well. Make sure you are genuine, so don't say it if you don't mean it. These compliments are much more acceptable and comments in some countries, say the US, than in places like Austria and Germany, but it's worth a try. It can be something as simple as: "I love you scarf! I had one of those, but I lost it on a business trip to Portland. May I ask where you purchased it?"
  • Don't do any hard selling. Many small talk situations will arise during networking events, so we recommend staying away from any me-me-me talk and hard selling. Everyone knows that you are there to sell your services, as is everyone else, so there's no need to be pushy. Talk about your business if it comes up, if you are asked, or if it seems like a natural transition. Don't immediately insist on presenting your business card. Don't rush.
  • Buy drinks. For better or for worst, things do seem to be easier with a glass of wine in hand (or cup of coffee, or dessert, or whatever). Be prepared to take out your wallet and ask people if you can buy them _________. This is a small investment (unless you are at an expensive Vegas hotel, of course), and might yield great results (or it might not). We've never really had anyone say no to this offer.
  • Be prepared. Even if you don't like football but the Super Bowl is that week, well, you better be able to talk about this in general terms. It's also important to be informed about what's happening in your community, your country and the world. This essential because these are all great, easy and non-controversial conversation topics. Being informed will make you look intelligent, engaged and connected to your world.
  • Have fun. Have you seen the groups standing around, talking, laughing and having a jolly good time? It sure sounds like they have fun, and everyone wants to be part of that group. Be part of the group yourself by relaxing, telling yourself that nothing bad is going to happen, being open to meeting new people and make small talk, even if it bores you. And then just have fun! This is, after all, work, and it would be worse. Much worse than hanging out at a nice event with interesting people. 
This is, of course, only a short list of ideas. We'd really enjoy hearing what our dear colleagues have to add. Feel free to share any experience you've had as well! Happy small talking. 


Anonymous said...

The worst thing that happened to me was when the other person just not responded at all. You can open yourself as much as you want to, but if your partner isn't into small talk, what do you do? An akward moment where I didn't know how to react properly.

Any ideas?

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on June 25, 2013 at 8:29 AM said...

@vanbrabantnathalie: Thanks for reading and for commenting! You bring up an excellent point: some people just really aren't open to conversation, which begs the question as to why they even go these events. In these cases, the best solution is to wish the person a nice day/evening, and make a polite exit and look for a more willing conversationalist.

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