Small Talk Tips for Translators

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The old adage that we hear in our industry might be  spot on: most interpreters are fairly extroverted, while most translators tend to be introverts. Of course, that's an oversimplification indeed, and we know that there are always many exceptions to all rules, but in our many years in the industry, we have realized that translators struggle more with one important thing than interpreters do: small talk.

Do you hate small talk? If yes, read on. Do you love small talk? Then you probably don't need this post, but you might enjoy it anyway.

We get it: small talk can be painful, but you can make it easier on yourself by keeping a few things in mind:

  1. Keep it short. At networking events, no one wants to hear long, complicated stories. Be succinct and interesting, but resist the urge to tell our life story.
  2. Don't monopolize people. We know that once you get comfortable talking to one person and your nerves settle down a bit, you might want to hang on to that person for dear life because it's scary to start over with another person. We know how it is--trust us. However, remember that everyone is there to mix and mingle and that you are not the only person they want to talk to.
  3. Don't be afraid of standing around alone. Of course, it's not comfortable at all if the person you were talking to excuses herself to join another conversation and you are stuck standing there with your wine glass and no one to talk to. Yes, it's uncomfortable, but work up the courage to walk up to someone else and strike up a conversation. If all else fails, go to the bathroom and come back refreshed.
  4. Work on your conversation starters. The easiest was is just to introduce yourself and say something simple along the lines of "I am new to this event" or "I just wanted to say hello because I don't know many people here" or something similar. Experienced networkers will get the hint and will introduce you to others. Another good way to start a conversation is to ask questions: about the organization, about that particular event, about the person you are talking to, etc. This brings us to the next point.
  5. Learn to listen. The best relationship builders are people who truly, truly listen and who are not focused on obsessing over what they can sell, but rather how they can maybe help the other person. It's a powerful thing to think long-term and big picture rather than short-term and project-based. For instance, Judy was recently at a dinner where a friend mentioned she was looking for freelance work in the human resources world. Judy happened to think of another friend who is in desperate need of freelance HR professionals. Judy connected them, and everyone's happy. There was no business in there for us per se, but we invested in the relationship, and that's what matters in the long run. Maybe they will both need our services at some point, and maybe they won't. 
  6. Brush up on current events (including sports). Even if you don't like baseball, you better have something to say if you are at an event during the World Series. And while local politics might mostly not be that interesting, but might want to know that a big new company is investing 100 million in your state. It's important to come across as sophisticated and educated. Of course you don't have to know everything, but we recently met a professional who said she hadn't heard of Berkshire Hathaway. While that's fine, that's probably not something you want to publicize. The bottom line is: be informed. Clients want to work with professionals who are aware of their world and what happens around them. We feel the same about our contractors, by the way.
  7. Avoid certain topics. It's usually best to steer clear of politics, religion, and most highly personal matters. Sure, there's always an election around the corner, and it's of course perfectly fine to have an opinion, but we prefer to talk about more neutral matters with people we don't know or barely know.
  8. Drinking. While this point has nothing to do with the actual art of small talk, just remember that drinking more than you are used to (which you might possibly do if you are nervous) will negatively impact your ability to make intelligent conversation. We like to have a glass in our hands, but oftentimes we refill it with water. Drink intelligently.
  9. Introductions. It can be awkward when another person walks up and you don't know who either the first or the second person is. In our experience, it's usually best to be honest and say: "I am sorry, we just met, would you mind telling me your name again so I can introduce you to..." It's horrifying to stand next to people all evening without knowing their names, so it's good to get the introductions out of the way early on. And it's fine to admit you don't remember. Just ask again. Get a business card and try to remember one particular thing about the person (her purse, his shirt, her cute earrings, his Boston accent, etc.) to help you remember.
  10. It's an art. Now, don't be discouraged if you don't have a great time every time you go to a networking event or if you simply find that some people are hard to talk to. That's just the way it is, and give yourself kudos for trying. Small talk is similar to translation in one way: it's art, not science. And just like translation, it usually gets easier the more you do it.
Happy small talking! This list is, of course, not exhaustive by any means, and we'd love to read about any other suggestions that colleagues might have. Just leave a comment and join the conversation.


MChavez on April 27, 2015 at 8:51 AM said...

You meant to say that most TRANSLATORS are introverted. Ha! :)

MChavez on April 27, 2015 at 9:02 AM said...

As a very introverted translator, allow me to share how we introverts view the small talk think, point by point:

1) Good point for everyone. I tend to give elaborate descriptions or analogies when asked a question.
2) This monopolization tip is good for everyone, but especially for motormouths who enjoy a noisy banter or who are very gregarious (not us introverts). However, some of us introverts might get so deep in the conversation with one person that we end up monopolizing the conversation.
3) Not a fear for an introvert. We prefer to stand alone, trust me.
4) Introverts have different conversation starters, and we mean different things with the same opening. Example: an extrovert says How are you? as a token of courtesy, whereas an introvert will ask that out of interest for the person, to invite trust and announce a listening ear.
5) Not for us. We introverts are very good listeners as a rule.
6) Good tip, but we might have different things in mind about current events. Sports? Please, not for me.
7) That's a tough one for me, because I don't consider any topic off limits unless the interlocutor tells me or signals otherwise.
8) Good advice. Not a teetotaler here, but no regular drinker. Herbal tea, please.
9) Good one. I have an eidetic memory for faces, but I'm lousy at remembering names, even if I just met the person!
10) To each his/her own. I prefer thoughtful conversations, long or short. Small talk comes across as superficial and shallow. Believe me, I have used it hundreds of times in different permutations, always putting the focus on my interlocutor. If he or she is a very extroverted person, she consistently shows little or no interest in what I'm thinking or what I have to say.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 27, 2015 at 10:13 AM said...

@MChavez: Great stuff, thanks for sharing. :) We do know a few extroverted translators, but there are very few indeed. Happy Monday and thanks for reading and for commenting.

Oh, and like it or not: people talk about sports. It's a safe topic and usually better than politics. We are not into football either, but it doesn't hurt to know who's in the playoffs.

MChavez on April 27, 2015 at 10:43 AM said...

Oh, I do know people talk about sports. I live in Ohio (so you're either into Cavs or into Browns, or LeBron). And sports is a safe topic among guys.

Unknown on May 20, 2015 at 12:25 PM said...

Well, at least I know I fit one of the qualifications of a translator. It's too bad I didn't get started with this thirty years ago.

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