Interviews in most English-speaking countries often begin with casual conversation called "small talk" - usually right after the greetings and introductions.
Small talk is just as important as the actual interview questions, so you should be prepared for it.
Succeed at small talk in English interviews
Small talk is about topics NOT related to your school application or the job opening. So why is it important to spend time on small talk if you're there to interview?
Why is small talk important?
Because even if what you’re talking about seems like it’s not important, it actually is important. It's not important because of the topics, it's important because the interviewer is evaluating you while you're talking.
During the small talk, the interviewer is deciding if he or she likes you.
How to be likable during small talk:
- Be polite
- Be positive and enthusiastic – don't complain about anything, even something small like the weather
- Listen to the other person (don't interrupt) and show that you're listening by nodding your head, etc.
- Keep your answers short
- Make eye contact
- No phone – your phone should be on silent and in your pocket or bag. Do not look at it! Even while you're waiting!
Do all cultures like small talk?
No, whether people use small talk varies by culture. This article only applies to American interviews. Most other English-speaking countries, however, like England, Australia, etc., also use small talk in business situations.
Examples of small talk questions and good answers
There are thousands (probably millions) of questions that could be part of the small talk phase. Here are some of the most common.
Interviewer: "How are you today?"
You: "I’m fine, thank you. How are you?" or "I'm well, thank you. How are you?" or "Great, thanks, how are you?"
Note: There are many ways to answer these questions. Use one that is grammatically correct and make sure to ask them in return.
Interviewer: "May I get you something to drink?"
You: "No thank you." or "Oh, no, I'm fine. Thank you."
Note: Your answer should always be no even if you are thirsty. It is polite for them to offer but it is polite for you to refuse (with a smile). In some offices the assistant will probably make the offer. You must still refuse. Some of you are from cultures where food and/or drink are offered to guests and visitors even in office settings. That is not common in American offices. Usually if the interviewer offers and you accept, they will have to get up and go get your drink. It is not polite for you to ask this.
Interviewer: "Did you have any trouble finding our office?"
You: "No, it was pretty easy and there wasn’t much traffic."
Note: Again, there are many ways to answer this. Make sure to give a positive answer. If you did have trouble, don't say that you did.
Interviewer: "Isn’t this great weather we’re having?"
You: "Yes, I love spring."
Interviewer: "Isn’t this terrible weather we’re having?"
You: "Yes, it won't stop raining. I hope it changes soon."
Note: If the interviewer complains about the weather, you can agree.
Another note: a native English speaker would say "yeah" here instead of "yes." It sounds more natural and casual, which is appropriate for the small talk phase.
Asking about your weekend or your evening (either in the past or the future)
Interviewer: "Did you have a nice weekend?"
You: "Yes, it was very relaxing. What about yours?"
Interviewer: "Did you see the Red Sox game last night?"
You: "Yeah, I couldn’t believe what happened."
Examples of small talk questions and bad answers
Those were some examples of small talk questions with good answers. Now here are some bad answers with explanations for what makes the answer bad.
Interviewer: "How are you today?"
You: "I’m pretty nervous actually. I need this job!"
This answer is bad for too reasons. (1) It is negative, and you should always have a positive attitude during an interview. (2) You sound desperate. Of course you need the job, that's why you are there. You don't need to say it.
Interviewer: "Did you have any problems finding us?"
You: "To be honest, I got lost when I got off the train. I was afraid I was going to be late."
This answer is bad for two reasons. (1) "To be honest" is a phrase you should never use. It doesn't mean anything and many people hate it. Of course you are being honest, because otherwise you are lying. (2) You should have practiced getting to the office the day before. If you didn't, don't tell them that. It makes you seem lazy and irresponsible.
Interviewer: Isn’t this great weather we’re having?
You: I can remember this time last year. It was terrible. I thought it would never get warm.
This answer is negative. Even if it is true, try to say something positive instead.
I hope you understand what makes these answers wrong. If not, ask me questions in the comments.
For a quick small talk review before your interview:
- Look at these questions
- Think of other questions that you might have to answer
- Practice by yourself until you recognize these questions and can give the answers easily
- Practice with another English speaker
Small talk topics for:
I can help you practice your small talk so you'll feel comfortable in your interview. Email me at email@example.com and we can talk about your interview preparation.