Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner: The Art of Small Talk

February 1, 2012
Instructional Communication

Small talk is a powerful instrument for beginning a relationship. Mastering the art of small talk can open many doors to your future. Why is small talk so powerful? According to Don Gabor, author of the book How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends, small talk is powerful for two reasons. First, engaging in small talk with someone indicates a willingness on your part to talk to the person. Second, small talk allows people to exchange information in order to discover common interests. You need good conversational skills in every aspect of your life: business, social, and personal.

Susan RoAne, known as the Mingling Maven, has authoredHow to Work a Room and What Do I Say Next? Her books help interested readers learn the art of small talk. Students can access her advice on her website.

Below are some activities for your students to learn more about and practice the art of small talk.

1.  Pair students with someone they do not know or with whom they are only casually familiar. Provide them with five to ten minutes of class time to engage in small talk. Students can answer the following questions as a class or individually: Were you able to sustain a conversation? What suggestions from Susan RoAne’s website did you incorporate into your conversation? Rate the other person’s small talk skills using the information you learned on her website. The more you practice talking to new people, the more effective you will be at engaging in small talk.

2.  Students can practice their small talk skills by critiquing the skills of someone else. Movie clips or TV show clips can provide good segments of small talk to critique. Here are some suggested movie clips.

Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason 

In this sequel to Bridget Jones’ Diary, Bridget Jones is dating Mark Darcy. Bridget Jones is not skilled when it comes to small talk. Mark invites Bridget to the law counsel dinner. After making an entrance with too much blush on her face, she cleans herself up and goes into the party to mingle. Identify mistakes that Bridget made and how you would change the interaction if placed in the same situation.  

Here are some examples to consider:  Mark introduces Bridget to Derek, Horatio, and Camilla. Bridget looks at Mark and says, under her breath (but audible to everyone in the group), “Horatio?!” Camilla is gracious enough to inform Bridget of the topic of conversation (charitable giving) prior to her joining the group. Bridget disagrees with the opinion of the group and begins to argue with them about their opinions of charitable giving. Then she insults the “fat, balding Tories” (a group of whom are standing behind the group she is with and overhear her comments). Later, Bridget is seated next to someone she’s never met. The man starts talking about his ex-wife, another small talk faux pas.

 About a Boy 

There are several scenes from this movie that can be used to illustrate the concepts of small talk. Most notable is the scene in which the boy, his mother, Fiona (Toni Collette), and his friend, Will (Hugh Grant), go to dinner. Analyze the small talk in this scene and think about how you would handle the situation differently.

Here are some examples to consider: Fiona makes several small talk mistakes.First she makes jokes about her depression (she had previously attempted suicide). Second, Marcus (Fiona’s son) and Fiona state they are vegetarians. Then Will orders a steak sandwich. Third, when they invited Will back to their home, Fiona played the piano and sang “Killing Me Softly” while the boy joined in, making Will quite uncomfortable. 

About the author (s)

Kristin K. Froemling

Radford University

Assistant Professor