Make, don't have! - Semantics first: In English, you make small talk, you don't have small talk. This ability is a vital skill for business people. In many cultures, for example China, people put great emphasis on getting to know their business partners, and feeling comfortable with them before making deals with them. In Britain and America, it is also common to "oil the wheels" of business with small talk.
To introduce ... : To get small talk off to a good start, make sure you can introduce yourself. The best way is often just to say your name, job and company: "Hello, Michaela Braun. I'm the marketing manager at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hamburg." You also need to be able to carry out simple introductory conversations:
Susan: How are you, Franz?
Franz: Fine thanks, Susan. And you?
Susan: Fine. How was your flight?
... or not to introduce? In many situations, however, we make small talk without introducing ourselves at all. Imagine that you are visiting a company in London and someone says to you in the lift: "Nice weather, isn't it?" In this encounter, it would be ridiculous to start by saying: "Good morning, Harald Schmidt from research and development at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany. Yes, you are right, the weather is nice." Instead, an English person would typically reply: "Yes, lovely, isn't it?"
Be open: One of the most important skills during small talk is the ability to keep the conversation going. One way to do this is to ask open questions, which require your partner to answer with more than "yes" or "no". Practice using open questions, those that start with "when", "where", "how", "how long" etc. For example: "When did you arrive in Germany?"; or: "What do you think of Berlin so far?"
Give feedback, add information: As the listener in a conversation, you can encourage the speaker by giving feedback with expressions such as "I see", "oh, that's interesting" or "right". In small talk, silence is definitely not golden. Listeners can also help to make conversation more fluid by adding extra information. For example, if you are asked a closed question such as "is your hotel alright?", then you could reply: "Yes, thank you, it's very comfortable, and the service has been excellent".
Classic topics... : There are a number of classic topics for business small talk, and you should make sure you have the vocabulary to talk about them. These include: health (for example, "how have you been recently?"), travel ("how was your flight?"), accommodation ("how is your hotel?"), family ("how old are your children now?"), holidays ("where did you go on holiday this year?"), and, of course, the weather ("how's the weather been here recently?"). Such vocabulary is often underestimated by business people, who regard it as not being part of "business English". In practice, however, these are often the areas where business people have most difficulties.
... and less common ones: Religion, sex and politics are usually thought of as topics to be avoided during business small talk. However, while it is essential to be sensitive to your business partner's culture, it would be absurd to rule out three of life's most interesting topics. More important is how you talk about them. For example, a question such as "I believe you have elections coming up soon, don't you?" could lead to an interesting discussion.
Keep small talk small: It is sometimes said that, in light conversation, "the British talk about the weather, the Germans talk about their health". But remember that your business partners do not want to hear a detailed report of your medical troubles. I recently greeted a young German student of business English in Munich with the innocent question, "hi Maria, how are you?" and received the answer, "not so very well, actually. I spent the whole night on the toilet". This is more information than any business partner needs. Instead, she could either have pretended she was "fine", or she could have said, "actually I'm not feeling too good today, but I'll be fine".
And more small talk ...: Many business people make the mistake of believing that small talk comes only at the start before the "real business". However, although you should not waste time in negotiations, look out for signals from your business partners that they, too, are ready for a short break from business talk. Often, short interludes of small talk during the business section can help to improve relations and make it easier to reach the deal you want.
Ian McMaster ist Chefredakteur von Business Spotlight. Die aktuelle Ausgabe enthält einen Artikel zum Thema Smalltalk.