Making Small Talk in the American Workplace

Reposting from 2011 because this topic keeps coming up in conversations with friends and colleagues from outside of the U.S.

How do you start a casual, social conversation with an American co-worker? What kinds of topics are OK/not OK to talk about? How should I answer when someone asks "how was your weekend?"

I've been hearing these questions often lately, in conversations with people from different countries who've come to work or study for a while in the U.S. The type of "small talk" that Americans have been practicing since childhood can seem strange and even a bit mysterious to people who are operating in English as a second or third language, and coming from places where this communication pattern isn't typical.

There seem to be two underlying questions behind these inquiries. What to talk about and how to do it.

First, the WHAT. What types of topics are good conversation starters? In a recent informal poll of some colleagues and students, we came up with this list of "safe" topics. Topics that most Americans would be happy to talk casually about, without taking offense or losing interest too quickly.

  • The weather: how nice/not nice it's been or will be soon, how to cope with, drive in or dress for the rain, snow/ice, heat/humidity, fill in the blank_________.

  • Recreational activities/hobbies: what they like to do outside of work, what types of activities there are to do in the area, where to do activities that interest you.

  • Shopping: best places to shop, best prices, places to find specific items.

  • Food, music, entertainment (TV, movies): what they like to eat, watch, listen to. Where to do those things in the area.

  • Sports: what they like to play or watch, what sports are popular in the area, how to join a team and participate in a sport that interests you, latest news about local sports teams.

  • School/education: where they went to school, what they studied, how the education system works in the U.S. and how that's different from or similar to your educational experience.

This list could go on, but I think that more important than the topics themselves is the HOW. The approach to engaging in casual conversations. Again, from our informal poll, here are some simple ideas for getting past those first awkward moments more smoothly:

  • Be an observer: watch how Americans engage in "small talk." Listen to what they say and how they say it. Pay attention to the types of topics they like to talk about in different situations---at the beginning of the work week, in line at the grocery store, at the fitness center, or in different scenes in movies or TV shows.

  • Ask for advice: most Americans are happy to share what they know, so asking for advice is a great way to start a conversation.

  • Prepare some simple answers in advance: if you've noticed that your co-workers always ask "how was your weekend" on Monday morning, then prepare yourself with a simple answer like "nice, I went to the dinner with some friends" or "not bad, but I can't wait for the rain to stop so we can get outside more." You may be surprised at how easily these simple answers lead to more questions and conversation, either at that moment or the next time you encounter that person in the future.

Finally, relax and enjoy. Casual conversations are important for building and maintaining good working relationships in the U.S., but it's not necessary to become a "small talk" expert.

*This article was first published on Ann Marie’s Blog in 2011