If you're at an on-site interview, you may have to eat a meal or go for drinks with your interviewers or with members of the department.
This is the time when you're going to have to use your small talk skills.
What is small talk?
Small talk is the conversation that happens before, during, or after the interview (or the business meeting or the conference) that isn't about the professional topic. It's typically about "unimportant" topics.
Why do I need to use small talk?
The most important thing to remember about small talk is that even though you may feel shy using your second language, it is sometimes considered rude to say nothing. In an English-speaking environment it is often better to make a few mistakes than to say nothing at all.
Let me repeat this, especially for those of you from Asian cultures: It is often better to speak imperfectly than to say nothing.
Do Americans use small talk?
Americans love small talk, or at least we're used to using it. I don't actually like it, but I'm good at it because I need to be.
I realize that if you're not used to talking to Americans this situation might not be easy for you.
Some cultures don't use small talk in professional situations.
Who needs to practice small talk skills before an interview?
I had a client this week who wanted to spend our time practicing small talk. She's an example of someone who could and probably should practice their small talk skills before an interview.
She is a Korean Master's student at an Ivy League school who is applying to Ph.D. programs and she said she was so nervous about this part of the interview that she couldn't think about anything else all day before our class.
She made me realize that small talk is really hard for internationals, especially from countries like Korea or China or Japan where it isn't common in interviews.
If you're equally nervous about small talk, you should practice before you go.
Best topics for small talk out of the office
These topics will work for during the interview too.
Weather is a popular small talk topic. You can say something like:
- "Is it always so hot in the summer here?" (If it's hot that day)
- "Does it rain a lot here?" (if it's raining that day)
- Beautiful day, isn't it? (if it's clear and sunny)
- Can you believe all of this rain we've been having? (If it's been raining a lot)
- It looks like it's going to snow.
- I hear they're calling for thunderstorms all weekend.
The food or drink
Good if you're at a restaurant or bar
- Have you tried the cabbage rolls?
- Would you like a napkin?
- Are you enjoying yourself?
- It looks like you could use another drink.
- Would you like another beer?
- Pretty nice place, huh?
- What do you do in your free time?
- Do you play tennis?
One of my clients wasn't sure what Americans consider normal hobbies. She was afraid to talk about something in case it wasn't normal. These are all normal hobbies: reading, hiking, rock climbing, dancing, cooking, going to movies. Going to the gym, traveling, listening to music, and shopping are also normal hobbies. My husband's hobbies are playing video games, reading, watching movies, and watching basketball. My mother's hobbies are gardening, reading the newspaper, and walking. My mother's neighbor's hobby is reading.
There are a lot of hobbies you can talk about. If you're not sure if your hobby is "normal" enough, don't talk about it.
Don't talk about going to church or doing anything political.
- Where are you from?
- How do you like Atlanta? (whatever town you're in)
- Have you been living here long?
- What is there to do in your free time here? (obviously, don't use this if you're in a big city like New York)
If you're a sports fan, research the local team so you can start a conversation about it.
- Did you see the Red Sox game last night?
- I saw the Redskins game last night. Did you see it?
Movies and TV
You can always ask if they've seen the latest episode of Game of Thrones or whatever tv show is popular, and the same with movies. They may say they haven't seen it but hopefully they will continue the conversation.
- Have you seen the new Star Wars movie?
- Do you watch Star Trek?
- Have you been to China? (If you're from China)
- Do you have a trip planned? (If it's near the holidays)
- Did you see the news about the flood in Texas?
- Did you hear about the new book about Trump?
I know you're busy and you may not be interested in US news, but you need to read a US newspaper every day in the few weeks before your interview because you may be asked about current events.
I was practicing small talk with one of my clients and I asked her what she thought of the wildfires. This was during the week when the fires were burning in Napa Valley, California. She hadn't even known about them, and they were on the front page of every newspaper that week.
No one is going to ask you about some small thing that happened in Atlanta a few weeks ago, but they may mention something big, like the wildfires. You should know what the big stories are so you can hold a conversation about it.
Topics to avoid
There are also some subjects that are not considered acceptable when making small talk.
- Money: Don't ask anything that relates to how much money the other person makes. Also, don't bring up anything that shows how much money you have. For instance, don't talk about your BMW or your vacation to the Maldives. Unless of course you are applying for a job where you know the people you will be talking with make quite a bit of money.
- Personal information such as a recent divorce.
- Family: I find that people from non-Western cultures often bring up their families to their interviewers without being asked. The bottom line is that this is extra information that distracts from the main topic. If you're asked about it though, you can of course talk about it.
- Appearance: Compliments on clothing or hair are acceptable; however, you should never say something (good or bad) about a person's body or overall appearance, as this is too personal. If you are a man talking with a woman, I advise you to skip any talk about appearance.
- Religion: Don't ask about religion or mention that you go to church. Religion is not important to many Americans and they are uncomfortable with people who are religious. You don't know if your interviewer is comfortable with religion.
- Unpopular topics: Stop talking about an issue that the other person does not seem comfortable with or interested in.
You can't prepare sentences or questions for every topic you may be asked about during small talk, but if you prepare for the small talk period you should do well enough.
Further reading on small talk
- Grad school interview small talk
- College interview small talk
- Job interview small talk
- Basic small talk in interviews
I can help you practice your small talk so you'll feel comfortable in your interview. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching international students or international professionals for admissions interviews or job interviews.