Career

The Power of Small Talk as an International Student in the US

Many international students in the US go out of their way to avoid small talk with people around them. If you are one of them, here’s why you should change that.
5 mins

Getting stuck on a seemingly simple topic as small talk is not uncommon. Even the most advanced speakers feel left out of conversations around them from time to time. While some people are generally natural talkers, others prefer to keep their thoughts to themselves. Often it’s never about our speaking skills but rather how we let our emotions get the best of us.

We let the fear of conversations going the wrong way creep in. Other times we cripple our minds with the thought of feeling trapped in an uncomfortable conversation. Despite this, small talk is crucial to your success as an international student in the US. A simple small talk could be the springboard to further opportunities that might have otherwise remained closed.

Let’s kick things off by understanding what small talk is and how to apply it in all aspects of your career.

What is Small Talk? 

Simply put, small talk is a light, polite chat. It’s called “small” because you talk about unimportant things to fill awkward silences, open conversations, or bond about a shared experience. It’s one of the best strategies for managing interpersonal distance. 

Many international students studying or looking to work in the US avoid engaging in small talk for fear of not having fancy vocabulary or perfect pronunciation. But small talk is far away from that. All you need to do is be genuine and curious about other people. Once you have that in mind, sharing ideas and opinions on more essential topics becomes a breeze.

Why is Small Talk important, and Why Does It Matter?

Why is small talk essential for International Students in the US? Small talk is a massive aspect of American culture. And it's hard to ignore that you're not at home when you're having difficulty connecting with people around you. However, learning to use small talk constructively can make your everyday life in the US success-oriented and easier. 

Small talk is a great way to start a conversation with a new friend or a total stranger. It also gives you enough room to lay out your thoughts in a visually appealing manner.

Here are some more advantages of engaging in small talk.

- Helps establish common ground and mutual interests.

- Improves active listening skills.

- Helps to create a lasting impression.

- Helps advance in your career.

- Sparks fresh thoughts and insights.

- Helps in developing long-term relationships.

- Informs you everything about the present.

- Strengthens your social muscles while also enhancing your sense of adventure.

- Paves the way for more serious, in-depth discussions.

Below are four approaches that might assist you in making small talk in any setting.

  • Ask open-ended questions – When you ask open-ended questions, you help the person you're talking to open up and share their thoughts and feelings.
  • Practice active listening – If you're paying attention, it's much easier to ask relevant questions and remember the specifics to discuss later.
  • Show your enthusiasm; it's contagious! – Think of small talk as a chance to get to know new people. You never know who you'll meet and what they'll have to say, so take advantage of the opportunity and learn something new.
  • Smile and maintain eye contact at all times.

How to use Small Talk in a Job Interview

Employers often want to engage in small talk with you at the start or end of an interview. These conversations usually aim to set you at ease, or the employer may use this opportunity to analyze your transferable and interpersonal skills. A recent survey showed that more than eight out of 10 (81%) of recruiters consider interpersonal skills to be crucial in a job candidate.

Small talk is a great way to make a good impression and show off relevant skills for the position you're interviewing for, especially as an international student who has recently graduated. Therefore, you should adequately prepare for it. Using small talk in a job interview might be tricky, so here are a few pointers to get you going.

  • Be cheerful and polite. You are a one-person band selling your wares and services to the employer. Nobody wants to buy services from someone who does not appear to be pleased and appreciative of the opportunity to collaborate. 
  • Politics and religion are a no-go zone. Talking about controversial topics is a recipe for disaster. If you don't know what the other person thinks, you risk saying something offensive.
  • Your body language, facial expressions, voice tone, and eye contact are just as crucial as your utterances. Maintain a friendly, confident, and down-to-earth demeanor.
  • Be careful not to paint yourself in a negative light. This is often done by telling stories that put a bad impression on you. Instead, speak about things that showcase your maturity and intelligence.

Employers hire people they like to work with, not always those who are the best fit for the position. Engaging in small talk with your interviewer will help you establish a good first impression. While it may appear that the topic you're discussing isn't relevant during a job interview, it is, in fact, necessary. It's not about the topics but the interviewer's evaluation of you while you're talking. Maintain your composure and start the conversation on a light note by bringing up something simple. 

How to use Small Talk at Work

The chances are that, no matter what position you hold at work, you will be required to discuss professionally with people you don't know well or at all. It may be a co-worker, senior manager, client, or new networking contact. 

And that is where small talk comes into play… Again.

Whether you meet in the hallway, office kitchen, or cafeteria, small talk builds rapport, which in turn builds trust. Engaging in these talks enables you to make a connection and move toward building a substantial work relationship. 

However, be careful not to get involved in constant workplace complaints or grievances. Your colleagues may develop poor perceptions of you based on your negative interactions.

5 Good Small Talk Topics

That awkward moment when you have no idea how to begin a conversation is one of the worst feelings in the world. Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling if you're having trouble coming up with something to say.

Weather

Even though discussing the weather may seem boring, it is a nice subtle topic that everyone can agree on. Look out the window if you find yourself in a stalemate and start a discussion with, "lovely day, don't you think?" or “Seems like rain is on the way.”

Arts and entertainment

Movies, popular music, podcasts, books, and television shows are good art and entertainment conversation starters. Try to avoid talking about topics your partner hasn't seen or watched yet. Find some common ground and work your way out from there. 

Sports

If you're a sports fanatic, you should know that sporting events, tournaments, and local or international teams are great things to discuss. Especially with people, you don't know well. Keeping tabs on what sports are being played at what time of year will help you stay on top. If you're chatting to a fan of a rival team, don't go about trash-talking them. Instead, keep your conversation focused on team or individual player performance.

Food

As long as you keep it friendly and unbiased, food can be a terrific topic for small talk. You can enquire about a person's favorite food to order at a restaurant or whether or not they love cooking at home.

Travel

In general, vacation stories are well-received. Be prepared to answer questions and share your thoughts on the areas you've seen while on vacation. Ask people where they've been and what they'd recommend.

Hobbies

People love to chat about their hobbies, so yours is sure to pique their curiosity. Consider taking up a new hobby if you don't already have one. Not only will you have something to chat about, but having a pastime activity will allow you to meet people who share your interests.

Conclusion

It's impossible to avoid small talk in today's world. The good news is that everybody has something interesting to say. The trick is to find it. Using any of the examples mentioned in this article, you’ll be well on your way to having a seamless experience as an international student in the US. 

You will improve and become more comfortable with small talk with a few minutes of practice each day. As you master small talk, you will get the opportunity to learn new things and tap into the interests and experiences of the people you interact with. 

Interested in learning more? Algorizin recently hosted a webinar on the power of small talk with International Career & Integration coach Kevin Corrigan. This experience can help you get professional guidance on how to utilize small talk effectively for your career.

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