Why small talk is so important in your career

Woman greeting a man at a business event

Here are some reasons to master the art of chatting and tips for doing it correctly.

You're the hardest working person on the team and your results are always impressive. But do you know how to make small talk, or do you find yourself tongue-tied when occasions requiring it arise? Here are some reasons to master the art of chatting and tips for doing it correctly.

Nothing small about office small talk
Small talk is the social lubricant that encourages group bonding and cooperation. Ignoring people and social niceties can get you labeled as preoccupied, snobbish or rude.

Being shy (or 100 percent work-focused) is not a reason to avoid casual conversations. How you present yourself matters because colleagues and managers form an overall opinion of you partly based on your public persona. Sometimes, a smile and a "hi" or "good morning" are sufficient.

But when the occasion calls for more, stick with safe topics. There's always the weather when you need to shoot the breeze: "Horrible weather we've been having lately." "Can you believe this rain/snow/wind/heat?" Other suggestions:

  • Current events
  • A restaurant you just tried
  • Sports
  • A movie you've been wanting to see

Stay away from:

  • Anything involving politics, religion or controversial topics
  • Office gossip
  • Health problems
  • Your personal life

Small talk isn't helpful just with your co-workers. When meeting with clients or vendors, similar conventions apply. Before getting down to business, break the ice with small talk. Since these relationships are typically more formal than the ones you have with fellow employees, avoid topics that even hint at disagreement or controversy.

While soft skills such as verbal communication are part of building strong work relationships, it's important to respect other people's space. Here's where reading social cues come in. For example, when people are on their smartphone or reading in the breakroom, that's a signal they're not interested in a long conversation; make eye contact and acknowledge them when you enter the room, but let them have their down time. But if they put down whatever they're doing, that's your cue that it's OK to engage in small talk.

Conferences and other professional events
Workshops and seminars are about more than just familiarizing yourself with the latest trends and best practices in your industry. You'll be running into old colleagues and meeting new acquaintances, so take advantage of these networking events. With people you already know but may not have seen in a while, the small talk could consist of catching up on their professional activities or their family. With people you've just met, start with introductions and an abbreviated version of your elevator speech. Then you could chat about the sessions you've attended and interesting tidbits you've just learned.

More about small talk
Some people seem naturally gifted at knowing what to say and when to say it. A few may be born that way, but most developed the knack by actually making small talk — a lot of it. To become more adept with casual conversation, purposely put yourself in situations where you can polish your gift of gab: by the coffee machine or water cooler, while waiting for the elevator, around the copier, before and after meetings, and so forth. Observe others who know how to make small talk, and see if you can pick up pointers on their body language and conversation style.

If you feel you never know what to say during networking events, prepare by brainstorming possible topics beforehand. A good way to start a conversation is to ask people questions: about their company and what they do, seeing if you two have any mutual acquaintances, and whether they have similar problems with certain accounting software as you.

Smile and make appropriate eye contact while chatting. Avoid letting the small talk go on too long or veer into off-limit topics. And make sure you're not monopolizing the conversation. As with any conversation, be respectful and practice active listening.

Robert Half is the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 400 staffing and consulting locations worldwide. For more information about our professional services, visit roberthalf.com. For additional career advice, read our blog at blog.roberthalf.com or follow us on social media at roberthalf.com/follow-us.