Complete Small Talk Guide

The Complete Small Talk Guide [How to Use Small Talk With U.S. Executives]

The Complete Small Talk Guide: How to Use Small Talk with U.S. Executives

You are Alexander, the founder of a technology company in Ukraine. Now, you find yourself on a video call with potential Venture Capital (V.C.) investors from San Francisco, California. As you will see in the conversation below, you wish you had reviewed the Complete Small Talk Guide before you had this conversation.

You eagerly anticipated this call for two weeks and prepared your presentation extensively. Each day, hours and hours of preparation ensure you are ready to go..

You are confident in your presentation material.

Today is the day. It is now Monday evening in Ukraine.

“Good evening, Alexander, begins John Coates, the Managing Director of the VC fund.

“Hello,” you reply.

John continues, “How was your weekend, Alexander? Did you do anything interesting?”

Suddenly you panic.
You have no idea how to respond.

What does he want?
Why is he asking me about my weekend?
What do I say now???

You spent countless hours preparing your presentation, but it is crystal clear that you didn’t spend one second of preparation time on small talk. Now you are flustered and have NO idea what to do next.

Unfortunately, this presentation got off on the wrong foot.

It is essential to connect and build trust with the V.C. investors today.

You failed.

No connection. No trust.

To illustrate, please watch this funny example of really bad small talk that failed in this short video. (Really, you need to watch this!)

Welcome to the Complete Guide to Small Talk.

How to make small talk in English is not comfortable for business executives all over the world. This is the ultimate guide for business owners, CEOs, and executives, focusing on how to confidently make small talk.

The Complete Small Talk Guide is focused on international small talk with a business person from the United States. As discussed later in this guide, small talk differs significantly across cultures. 

The Complete Small Talk Guide will go into detail about:

1. What is Small Talk?

2. What Small Talk is Not

3. Most People are Not Comfortable With Small Talk

4. Small Talk Can Be One Of Your Most Important Skills

5. What is the Purpose of Small Talk?

6. Cultural Differences and Small Talk

7. The One Necessary Skill of Small Talk

8. Ordinary Listening vs. Genuine Listening

9. Why Should We Genuinely Listen?

10. What is Active Listening?

11. How to Use Genuine Listening in Small Talk

12. Strategy When Asking the Questions in Small Talk

13. Strategy When Answering the Questions in Small Talk

14. Good Small Talk Topics

15. Topics to Avoid in Small Talk

16. Does Small Talk Ever End?

17. Transition Phrases to Finish Small Talk

18. Confusion About “How Are You Today?” 

19. How to use Small Talk Effectively

20. Smile and Enjoy Small Talk

1. What is Small Talk?

Before we dive into the details of small talk, it is useful to generally understand what small talk is. 

What is Small Talk?

Small talk is informal, casual conversation at the beginning of a meeting or a call.

Common small talk topics are about the following: weather, life, travel, and food.

Think about small talk as something you would have with your neighbor or a friend that you don’t see all the time. Small talk is talking about everyday things that happen in life.

2. What Small Talk is Not

Maybe, more importantly, it is essential to understand what small talk isn’t.

What Small Talk is Not

Small talk is not a waste of 5 minutes.
Small talk is not useless.

Finally, small talk is not meaningless.It is common for different cultures to need help understanding why small talk is used in the U.S. Also, it is such a vital part of the U.S. business culture.

3. Most People are Not Comfortable With Small Talk

Small talk is confusing and not comfortable for most business executives throughout the world.

Most people are not comfortable with small talk

You are not alone if you are confused with small talk in the U.S. Hopefully, you will have a proper understanding of small talk after reviewing this Guide.

As discussed below in this Guide, many countries have very little small talk.

Culturally, it can be very uncomfortable to have a small talk conversation with a native English speaker because maybe you have never had a small talk conversation within your own country.

4. Small Talk Can Be One Of Your Most Important Skills

The one point that needs to be emphasized is that small talk is an actual skill. 

Even without perfect English, you can master the craft of small talk. And it is a crucial skill to master.

Small talk is an important skill

Business English For Executives focuses on building extraordinary business communication skills.

Small talk might be the most essential communication skill you master.

As you may have noticed previously, 95%+ of every conversation with a native English speaker begins with small talk. Thus, the skill of small talk has the utmost importance.

When you are having a conversation with almost any native English-speaking business person, they will naturally include small talk at the beginning.

In truth, you will experience this in virtually every business conversation, whether you are meeting in person, online, or by phone.

But why??

5. What is the Purpose of Small Talk?

Why does every business meeting or conversation begin this way?

Specifically, we will discuss this reason.

To explain, let’s look below.

What is the purpose of small talk?

Specifically, the purpose of small talk is twofold:

1) To build a connection; and
2) To build trust with someone.

Think about it. 

You only want to do business with someone you trust. 

After all, business is grueling and you know things will go wrong eventually. You need to be able to resolve difficult situations in the future, and it is much easier to do so when you feel that you can trust the other party.

Small talk is ultimately about building rapport with colleagues, clients, and stakeholders. It is a critical step in earning the trust and respect of those you do business with.

If you lack the skill to use small talk effectively in English, it will always be an uphill battle in building the crucial relationships you need to succeed internationally.

Below, the Complete Small Talk Guide will further explain this main purpose and discuss how small talk is looked at very differently all over the world.

6. Cultural Differences and Small Talk

In fact, there is always a lot of confusion about small talk and the role that small talk plays in different cultures. This is an excellent time to explore this topic.

The Role of Small Talk in Different Cultures

The culture of small talk is very different in different countries worldwide. As mentioned earlier, this Small Talk Guide is focused on small talk in the U.S.

As a general rule of thumb, you should understand the culture of small talk that applies to the person you are talking with. 

In truth, small talk culture is very different in the United States vs. Japan vs. the Middle East vs. Uzbekistan. 

There are differences in how small talk is done in different countries, and significant differences in what topics are appropriate for small talk from one country to the next.

There will be meetings that you have with US executives that will have 50% of the meeting time used for small talk. To some, this will seem a waste of time. But, it might be the most crucial part of the meeting, as described later in this guide.

However, in other countries, small talk could last for less than 30 seconds and be completely normal.

As with all effective communication, you need to know your audience and focus on what your audience needs. Additionally, in the case of small talk, know your audience and research small talk customs in their country.

7. The One Necessary Skill of Small Talk

To emphasize, let’s look at the ONE NECESSARY SKILL for small talk.

Genuine Listening is Necessary for Small Talk

Most business executives would overwhelmingly believe that the most important skill necessary for small talk is speaking.

However, I am here to tell you there is one necessary skill for effective small talk.

Surprisingly to some, speaking is not the most important skill – by a significant margin.

Let me explain.

This might surprise many, but…

Genuine listening is the number one skill necessary for meaningful small talk.

Yes, that’s right. LISTENING. Not just ordinary listening, but genuine listening.

Genuine listening is also known as active listening.

8. Ordinary Listening vs. Genuine Listening

Before we go on, it is crucial to understand the difference between ordinary listening and genuine listening. This Small Talk Guide will go into great detail below about genuine listening. 

Ordinary Listening vs Genuine Listening in Small Talk

Ordinary listening is something we do every day, and we don’t put any thought into it. It is normal. We hear the normal sounds in our home, maybe children, music, conversation, and the television. We do not put any additional effort into our ordinary listening, it just happens naturally.

On the other hand, genuine listening is when we actively listen to something.

We focus.
We concentrate.

Genuine listening is a skill.

It takes effort and it is powerful.

9. Why Should We Genuinely Listen?

At this point, it is very helpful to listen to two minutes of the words of William Ury in his notable TED Talk: The Power of Listening. As a review, William Ury is a world-renowned expert on negotiation, a Harvard professor who wrote one of the most popular books on negotiation ever, Getting to Yes.

As can be seen in this powerful TED Talk, Ury discusses the power of genuine listening in relation to negotiation. But, his message of the Power of Listening directly applies to effective small talk. Listen to his words in the video below.

10. What is Active Listening?

To review, William Ury describes active listening as the key to communication because it does the following:

1. It helps us connect with the other human being
2. It helps us build rapport
3. Active Listening builds trust
4. It shows we care.
5. Everyone wants to be heard.

As Ury stated, listening may be the key that opens the door to human relationships.

Active Listening is Key for Small Talk

As mentioned earlier in this Small Talk Guide, the entire purpose of small talk is 

1) To build a connection; and
2) To build trust with someone.

Above, William Ury reminds us that active listening helps us connect with the other person. 

The fundamentals of active listening are the cornerstone of effective small talk. As an example, when we genuinely listen to the other person, we can create a real connection and begin building trust.

We have established that genuine listening is the key to small talk. So, how do we genuinely listen?

In review, ordinary listening is usually focused on ourselves. It is all about us. Many times we don’t really even listen.

How many times has this happened to you? You meet a new person somewhere. The conversation usually goes something like this. 
You say, “Hi, I’m John.”
They reply, “Hi, I’m Susan.”

And you continue talking about what you had been talking about before.
Maybe 30 seconds later, you have NO idea what their name is.

No idea!

This is an example of ordinary listening. You are focused only on yourself and not on the other person.

In genuine listening, however, the spotlight moves from us to the other person.

How Genuine Listening Works in Small Talk

In genuine listening, we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and listen within their frame of reference.

To emphasize, genuine listening is not easy. 

In sum, genuine listening requires that we listen not only to the words that someone says but also to the emotions and feelings that the other person is showing.

11. How to Use Genuine Listening in Small Talk

So, how do you implement active listening within small talk?

The first thing to remember is that active listening is a skill.

Understand this skill.

Practice this skill.

Master this skill.

As noted earlier, almost all small talk will begin with a very simple and basic question: “How are you today?”

12. Strategy When Asking the Questions

A key strategy is to be the person ASKING this seemingly innocent question.

Firstly, let’s focus on being the person asking the questions. Later in this Small Talk Guide, we will explore how you can have effective small talk when you are answering the questions.

Think about it.

You ask, “How are you today?” and maybe for the first time in your life, you actually listen to the answer, not only what is being said but to what’s not being said. It will virtually always open the door to constructive small talk.

To explain, let’s look at an example based on the two characters introduced earlier in this Small Talk Guide, the Ukrainian founder, Alexander, and the American VC Managing Director, John Coates.

Alexander takes the lead and asks John, “How are you today, John?” 

John replies enthusiastically with his response, “Fantastic!”

The door has now swung wide open…

Suppose John uses a word such as “fantastic!” and shows signs of strong emotion (remember: listen to what’s not being said), in this case, enthusiasm. In that case, it creates the opportunity to ask many follow-up questions.

Alexander: “How are you today, John?”

John: “I’m fantastic.”

Alexander: “That sounds great. WHY are you so fantastic, John? Is there something special happening?”

Alexander has skillfully demonstrated to John that he is actively listening. Then he asks a question related to the topic at hand.

At this point, John will naturally answer with some reason why he’s feeling fantastic. It is usually quite simple to keep this conversation going for some time. Here’s a potential example of the conversation.

Alexander: “How are you today, John?”

John: “I’m fantastic.”

Alexander: “That sounds great. WHY are you so fantastic, John? Is there something special happening?”

John: “Yes, thank you for asking. I just returned from a great holiday on a Caribbean island, and it was so nice to recharge and have some time off.”

Alexander: “Oh, that does sound fantastic. What island did you go to?”

John: “My wife and I went to the island of Aruba and it was so nice.”

Alexander: “I’ve never been there before. Can you tell me what you enjoyed so much about Aruba?”

Certainly, this conversation can easily continue for more than five minutes naturally if Alexander asks John questions based on Alexander’s genuine listening skills.

In summary, here is the formula for effective small talk when you are asking the questions:

A) Actively listen to the answer; and
B) Ask a related follow-up question based on your skill of active listening

Small Talk Strategy When You Are Asking the Questions

This simple formula reiterates what Willam Ury shared with us earlier, and this is an excellent time to review this list again:

6 Reasons Why Active Listening is Key to Small Talk

1. It helps us connect with the other human being.
2. It helps us build rapport.
3. Active Listening builds trust.
4. It shows we care.
5. Everybody wants to be heard.
6. Listening may be the key that opens the door to human relationships.

In general, why does this work so well?

Previously, have you ever met anyone who seemed genuinely interested in you and kept asking very good questions about you? 

In this situation, you were impressed at how they really seemed so interested in you. 

You happily talked and answered questions. 

Most important, you felt great!

Later that night, you were thinking – that person was so interesting today, and they were a great conversationalist. The reality is that person was genuinely listening to you, and you were doing all of the talking. They did very little talking, Instead, you talked for about 90% of the conversation. They only actively listened and asked relevant questions. 

You felt great!

In general, people love when someone is interested in them. People love to talk about themselves, especially when someone is genuinely interested. We all love this feeling.

Consequently, do you see how it directly relates to effective small talk?

What happens when not actively listening?

Now, let’s look at what might happen if Alexander is not actively listening. Many times in small talk, we are so worried about what we will say next that we never listen. 

We only focus on “What am I going to say next?”

If Alexander is nervous or not skilled at active listening, then in this case, he might let this opportunity pass him by and start a new line of questions. 

As an illustration:

Alexander: “How are you today, John?”

John: “I’m fantastic.”

Alexander: “How is the weather today in San Francisco?”

John: “Umm.. well, it is raining today.”

Alexander: “Have you lived in San Francisco for a long time?”

John: “Seven years.”

Alexander: “I’ve never been there before. I hope I can go there one day.”

Wow… how will John feel at this time?

In particular, will he feel any connection?

Do you think John will feel any rapport?

Will he feel any trust?

In sum, will he feel that Alexander is listening to him??

The following graphic summarizes the simple strategy you can use when you are an active listener in the conversation.

At first, you begin by asking, “How are you doing today?” and then you use genuine listening skills.

Next, you may genuinely listen to something they say, such as something about the weather, food, travel, or work.  You can then ask a follow-up question based on something they said.

Or maybe because you were genuinely listening, you can “hear” something that they did NOT say, and you can ask a follow-up question. 

You may have heard extra enthusiasm in their answer, and you can ask about that. Maybe you heard some other type of emotion, such as something potentially negative. Yes, it can be appropriate to ask about this also.

As an example:
Alexander: “How are you today, John?”
John: (in a voice with very low enthusiasm) “I’m doing ok.”

At this point, Alexander can ask why John seems so down. Alexander does not need to know the exact reason why John seems so unenthusiastic. Still, because Alexander is using the skill of active listening, John will appreciate the following question from Alexander.

Alexander: “It sounds like a difficult day. Are you sure this is a good time to talk? I am happy to find a more convenient time.”

Because Alexander has genuinely listened to John, John will respect Alexander for this question. John now has a choice to continue the call today or reschedule for later. 

In either case, Alexander wins. John will feel a connection with Alexander because Alexander genuinely listened.

Conversely, let’s change roles and look at small talk from the perspective of the person answering the questions.

13. Strategy When Answering the Questions

There is a simple and effective strategy to use when you are in the position of answering the questions.

Small Talk Strategy When You Are Answering the Questions

This is the Expand and Build Strategy of Small Talk.

If you are asked a question, don’t only give a simple short answer (similar to the series of answers Grant gave in the introductory video… yes/no/I’m busy/so many/etc).

But, instead, follow this forumula:

– Listen to the question,
– Answer the question
– Expand on your answer
– Build on your answer

How can you use the expand and build strategy? It is simple, really.

In general, when someone asks you a question, try to think of one or more of the following questions in your mind to help you answer the question with more information:


At this point, think about answering some of these questions in your mind when giving your answer:

Who did you go with?
Where was this place?
How did you get there?
Why did you choose this activity?
When did you do the activity?
What was interesting about the activity?

Example: If someone asks you what you did this weekend. Don’t just say, “I went out to dinner at a restaurant.” Expand and build on your answer: “My wife and I went out to dinner at a nice Italian restaurant and we really enjoyed it.”

In summary, expanding and building makes it very easy for the other person to engage in small talk with you. Now, you have made it easy, and the other person can ask you many different questions based on what you just said. Example: Have you been to this restaurant before? Or… It sounds like it was good. What did you enjoy about it?


Remember that the purpose of small talk is 

1) To build a connection; and
2) To build trust with someone.

If you want to build a connection, make small talk easy for the person you are talking to. You have a choice. You can make it difficult or make it easy. So, make it easy. You will build much better connections 

It is difficult to enjoy the conversation when you are in an uncomfortable conversation. Additionally, it is difficult to feel that you are building trust and a connection.

Make it easy. Choose to make small talk comfortable for the other person.

Also, if you are actively trying to make small talk easy by expanding and building on your answers and the other person is only answering with short answers. Their responses might indicate that you may not be able to trust the other person. You may want to avoid doing business with this person.

At this point, you have a simple framework for all aspects of small talk. In small talk, you are either asking questions or answering questions. You should feel comfortable both asking questions and answering questions during small talk.

It is important to take the mindset of enjoying small talk. After all, you are using small talk now with a purpose. Go forward, build relationships and trust. Smile.

If you are going to be having a series of conversation with a person over time, it is a great idea to take notes during each conversation. This will give you the opportunity in the next call to follow up on something the person discussed. As an example, “I’m curious to hear how your son’s sports competition went. Last time we talked, you told me he was excited about this event.”

14. Good Small Talk Topics

It can be confusing what topics are appropriate for small talk. It certainly depends on the culture of the participants, Below is a list of “safe” small talk topics.

Good Topics for Small Talk

Having small talk with someone and discussing topics such as location, weather, travel, food, work, family, sports, and hobbies can lead to effective small talk.

In general, these topics allow you to begin to build trust and build a connection. You do not have to share any deep secrets or ask any questions that might make the other person uncomfortable.

If you are unsure what will make someone uncomfortable, choose to be cautious and only ask questions that you feel comfortable answering. When the person you are talking to brings up one of these topics in their answers, feel free to ask them questions about it. These are good topics to explore.

Always remember that the main idea of effective small talk is to let the conversation happen naturally. These “good topics” are listed above, but it doesn’t mean that you should lead with these topics, and in the first ten seconds, start asking questions like, “So, what’s your favorite sports team?” But instead, if you are answering questions, you can introduce sports in one of your answers by saying something like, “this weekend I really enjoyed watching my favorite sports team play on television.”

15. Topics to Avoid in Small Talk

It is worth looking at small talk topics that you should avoid.

Topics to Avoid in Small Talk

Stick to the facts. Small talk topics to avoid are normally those that include controversy or opinions. If you have an opinion about something, the other person may have a different opinion.

Different opinions do not lead to building a connection on a call with someone you have never met.

Small talk topics to avoid include politics, religion, personal finances, death, highly specific topics, gossip, age/weight, or complaining about something. 

Suppose you have a strong relationship with someone and you have already built trust and a relationship. You should feel comfortable discussing some, or all, of these topics. But only after you have developed a solid relationship with the other person.

16. Does Small Talk Ever End?

Commonly asked questions are: how often do you have small talk with someone? Does small talk ever end?

Does Small Talk Ever End?

The short answer is NO. Small talk never really does end.

It may be the first time you have talked with someone, or the 465th time. Small talk continues with almost every conversation you have.

Of course, if you are talking to someone 2, 3, 5, or 10 times a day, you will not have small talk at the beginning of each conversation. But, you will almost always have small talk during your first conversation of the day with them. 

This is one of the most significant things to understand from this Small Talk Guide – that small talk never really ends when having discussions with U.S. business executives.

After all, building relationships never really ends, nor does small talk. 

Another question that my clients often ask is when is the right time for the small talk part of the conversation to end. 

There is no perfect answer for when to end small talk. Sometimes it will last 30 seconds, and sometimes it will last 30 minutes. The best time to end small talk is when you feel that you have been successful in making a good connection and you can move on to the business purpose of the meeting.

17. Transition Phrases to Finish Small Talk

After you have used the effective strategies in this Small Talk Guide, thank the other person for the friendly discussion. At this time, you need to become comfortable with some transition phrases that will help you move naturally from small talk to business.

Overall, there is no “right phrase” to use. The goal naturally moves from the small talk discussion to business. In your transition, it is good to mention something about your conversation and open the door to begin discussing business.

To illustrate, here are some helpful and natural small talk transition phrases:

“Thank you for sharing the story about your weekend, would you like to get down to business now?


“Your holiday sounds so great! After hearing about that, I am looking forward to my next vacation. But, before that, we have a few significant matters to discuss…..”


“I’m happy to hear you had such a wonderful weekend. Let’s get the ball rolling now and discuss our project.”

Transition naturally from something you talked about to the reason you are meeting. With some practice, it will become very easy for you.

18. Confusion About “How are you today?

Before we wrap up the Complete Small Talk Guide, let’s talk about what “how are you today?” can mean in different situations.

"How are you today?" meaning in Small Talk

“How are you today?”

On the one hand, this question seems SO simple. But, on the flip side, it causes significant confusion in real life.

Let’s use the example of you flying to New York City for a business meeting with a new potential client. Your potential New York client has suggested a nice restaurant in Manhattan.

You arrive early and you find yourself waiting in a short line inside the restaurant for your table. Standing next to you is someone you’ve never seen before and waiting to get a seat at the restaurant. This person is obviously from New York City. He turns to you and says, “Howyadoin?” (New Yorkers would never be so proper and say “HOW ARE YOU TODAY?”). “Howyadoin?” is said as one syllable and short for “How are you doing today?”

And how does this person expect you to respond? With an affirmative head nod, of course. A tiny movement, with your chin moving closer to your chest by about 6 centimeters. That’s it. Nothing more. Any more response is uncomfortable.

What happened here? One person said “hi,” and you responded with “hi.”

Perfect communication… smiling.

Now you have been seated at your table alone and are waiting for your potential client to arrive. The waitress comes to your table and says, “How are you?” Now, things have changed. She’s looking for an answer from you. And your answer? “I’m good… how are you?” And that’s enough. It roughly translates to “hi” with a response of “hi” and she doesn’t need more information.

Perfect communication.

A few minutes later, your potential client joins you at the table. You have been looking forward to this meeting for a long time. She sits down and asks, “how are you today?”

Skillfully, you answer, “I’m fantastic – and how are YOU today?” You implement the strategies from The Ultimate Small Talk Guide. You take control of the conversation, start asking the questions, genuinely listen, ask great follow-up questions and quickly begin building a strong connection.

This great beginning of your conversation leads to you building trust during your lunch and happily ends with a new client for you before your lunch is finished.


19. How to Naturally Use Small Talk

Small talk is about having a natural conversation that builds connection and trust between two business people.

When discussing small talk, my clients are often uncomfortable. Usually, they ask for a list of phrases they can memorize and use. I explain this is entirely the wrong approach as it will not lead to a natural and trustworthy conversation. Instead, I help my clients become comfortable with what has been discussed above in this Small Talk Guide.

As explained above, small talk almost always begins with a simple “How are you today?” question. In addition, this will create a natural opportunity to explore new topics because of something you said, or the other person said.

Suppose you ask the question first and only get a little information. In that case, make sure that when you answer this question, you make it very easy for the other person to go into more detail in small talk.

All you need to do is answer and expand on your answer. As an example you answer can be, “I’m great today, and I had a wonderful weekend camping in the mountains with my family.”

Maybe for some reason, a new topic does not get started after the first “How are you today?” You can simply ask, “Did you do anything interesting this weekend/week?”

Or you can say something simple like, “The weather is so nice here these days. How is it in (their location)?” 

Now the conversation has started. Small talk is a skill. The skills you will use in small talk are genuinely listening and “expand and build.”

When you are asking questions, genuinely listen and ask additional questions related to what the person said.

When answering questions, expand and build on your answer and make it very easy for the other person to continue asking you questions based on what you said.

Take your time to switch roles between the person asking the questions and the person answering the questions. A good conversation will have both people naturally sharing information and actively listening to each other.

After you feel you have successfully had a conversation that helps build a connection and trust, you can transition to the business purpose of your meeting.

Thinking about small talk as a skill will help you naturally enjoy small talk and lead to more successful business relationships. Remember to smile!


Smile When Using Small Talk

Last but not least, you need to smile and enjoy small talk.

After all, as this Small Talk Guide has explained above, the goal of small talk is to build connection and trust. This is really hard to do if you don’t have a smile on your face.

It sounds simple, but many international executives need help to do this. Instead, they begin a conversation in a serious, business tone and never take the time to relax, smile, enjoy small talk and build a genuine connection.

Smiling is contagious. You smile, and the person you are talking to will smile. It is much easier to have natural small talk with a smile on both sides. It works.

Next time you have the opportunity to meet with a U.S. businessperson, please remember to smile at the beginning of your conversation. 

You will be happy your did.

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