Small Talk Is Much More Than New Vocabulary And Speaking. It’s A Mirror To Your Humanity.

by | Oct 18, 2018 | 0 comments

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Small talk sucks!

I hear you.

Everyone tells you it’s an excellent way of forging successful business relationships during that networking event, before that business meeting, over coffee.

And yet, you run a mile from it. It’s too stressful, daunting and you simply don’t know what to say most of the time.

Luckily for you, life has continued without you having to engage in small talk (in English).


You’re promoted to a senior position that requires you to hold regular Skype meetings with your Asian, South African and Australian suppliers.

Here’s where the ‘fun’ starts.

The calls with your South African and Australian suppliers are smooth sailing. They like to get down to business immediately. No small talk needed. Phew!

On the other hand, your Asian suppliers LOVE small talk. If you’re both women, they ask questions about your marital status and family.

“Are you married?”>> “What’s your husband like?>> What do they do?”>>“How many children do you have? “>>“How old are they?” >> “What food do you eat in Spain?”

It would be rude not to answer, even though you’d rather not.


What do you do?

You contact an English teacher to have some lessons.

You tell yourself (and them) that once you have the vocabulary around the topics of family, country, hobbies and so on (read: the ‘usual’ small talk topics), you’ll be fine. You’ll be ready to answer all those questions.

In other words, you’ll be able to speak fluently about these topics and engage in small talk.

Mission accomplished.

The missing link.

Trouble is…there’s an important piece missing with this strategy.

In this post, I’m going to share with you what’s missing when you focus only on answering questions (speaking only), why the link is important and suggest what you need to do instead.


This is what happens when you focus on answering questions (speaking) only

Imagine a conversation that goes like this:

You: Hello, Zhang. How are you today?

Zhang: I am very well. How is your family?

You: Oh, they’re very well. Thank you.

Zhang: How are your daughters?

You: They’re fine, thanks.

Zhang: What are their favourite subjects at school?

You: One daughter likes history and Spanish. The other daughter likes geography.

Zhang: Oh that’s good. History is important. How’s your husband?

You: He’s well, thank you.  Zhang, did you get my last email about the order?

And the conversation is now back to business.


What’s missing in this conversation?

> Where’s the communication in these exchanges? It’s all one-sided.

> Where’s that conversation leading you? Nowhere.

> Where’s the connection? There isn’t one.


If all you’re focusing on is answering questions (speaking), how’s this new relationship you’ve established going to evolve?  


Remember this is the person:

> you’re going to be working with over months, perhaps, years;

> you need to trust and rely on to get your job done;

> who wants to get to know you personally (in many Asian cultures, this is essential for good business rapport).


Simply speaking to answer questions is NOT going to forge a meaningful relationship. At best, it will be functional and at worse, an unfulfilling experience each time.

Something to be tolerated and dismissed. Who wants that?

Surely it would be much more rewarding to have a connection that inspires you, teaches you, encourages you, challenges you and makes you look forward to the next meeting?


But how do you achieve that?


Be Curious and Listen

If you’re serious about forging a successful relationship with your colleague, you need to BE CURIOUS.


Be curious about:

★ them as a person  

★ their family

★ what excites them about their work

★ what motivates them

★ what worries them

★ their culture

★ their perspective

★ their dreams

★ their passions


Be curious = ask questions.


Ask them about their family >> their job >> their day>> how they get to work>>how their weekend was>>their favourite book>> their favourite colour >> how their week was since you last spoke to them.




Pay attention to their answers.


That innocuous question could lead to a revealing answer part of which could be helpful to bring out in the future.


For example…


Music to my ears

You discover you both enjoy listening to classical music and they reveal to you their favourite composer (Chopin) and piece of music (Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor)

A few weeks later, you find out they’re going through a tough time at work. You send them an email with a link to the PIano Sonata to cheer them up.


Poetry in motion

You’ve both been working really hard on a project, and for reasons beyond your control, the project is delayed. Your colleague is told to re-do their part of the work which will take weeks. They feel crushed and exhausted.

You remember they mentioned a few months back how they find a particular poet soothing. You decide to send them one of the poet’s poems to help them through what you know will be a tough few weeks.


“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” Aesop


Not only does this small gesture show your thoughtfulness, but it also shows you were listening enough to care.


It tells the other person that:

➣ They are important to you.

➣ They are valued.

➣ You ‘see’  and ‘hear’ them.

➣ They’re a person, not simply a cog in the wheel.

Don’t underestimate the power of small gestures

★ It’s these small gestures that nurture and strengthen our relationships.

★ It’s these small gestures that reveal our humanity.

★ It’s these small gestures that demonstrate our leadership skills.

★ It’s these small gestures that make us memorable.

★ It’s these small gestures that teach us how to truly communicate.


But they (the small gestures) won’t happen if we focus only on speaking and developing our vocabulary.


Next time…

You’re in that Skype meeting, be curious, ask questions and listen.

And use what you learn to reveal your humanity.


As the Dalai Lama says,

“When you talk, you’re only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”



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