Mastering small talk

So, how was your journey in? Did you find the offices okay? Isn’t the weather terrible? All innocuous enough questions, friendly even, but don’t be fooled. How you answer them is telling, and studies show that they have a big bearing on what an interviewer thinks of you and your abilities. In an article in Harvard Business Review, professors Brian Swider, Brad Harris and Murray Barrick explain the research they carried out on the subject. Experts compared recorded interviews of candidates with and without the initial small talk. Their analysis confirmed that initial impressions have a marked effect on interviewers, but not only that, even when the small talk is purposefully crafted to be unrelated to the job, it provides meaningful insights into how well the candidate would perform in a role. And you don’t have long to make an impression. According to research from the Resurgo Trust, a charity that helps disadvantaged young people find employment, your first 12 words will determine how the interviewer perceives you.Those that have social confidence instilled into them from a young age have the upper hand in the job market as small talk comes more easily. But even then, nerves creep in, leaving even the most eloquent lost for words.So, it makes sense to think beforehand about some of the ‘icebreakers’ that are often used and how you might respond to them…

How was your journey here?

Don’t say: “The train was late, I got absolutely drenched in the rain and I couldn’t find the office because your map is rubbish.”
Do say: there was a good route in from wherever it is you came from (if that’s the case) or that the offices were easy to find. One-word answers aren’t going to impress but neither will a long rambling answer on logistics or flattery on how the business is so well-known that everybody must know where it is based.What the interviewer is looking for is positivity. Use the question as an opportunity to demonstrate you are resourceful and reliable, and that the commute won’t be a problem. Don’t use it to whine.Show an interest in the interviewer but without getting personal – if you’re talking about the commute, you can ask if they get the train in. If they drive in, asking what car they have will make it sound like you’re fishing about their salary. Even asking whether it is easy for them to park around here might trip you up as they admit, sheepishly, that they have their own reserved bay.

Did you see the big game last night?

Don’t say: “What big game?”
Do say: A few words that acknowledge interest in the subject without professing to be an expert if you are not. The same rules apply to any interview question – don’t lie. Your interviewer isn’t going to mind if you don’t like football but if you didn’t know that the national football team won the World Cup last night, then they might wonder if you have a general awareness of current events.Even though you may have spent every waking minute preparing for the actual interview questions, spend ten minutes on getting up-to-date with what is going on in the rest of the world. If an interviewer mentions them, you don’t want to look like you are out of touch, but avoid being drawn on anything political. If you’ve found a common interest, that’s great but talk succinctly on the subject and not like you’ve just found your new best friend forever. Take your cue from the interviewer and their level of enthusiasm.

Isn’t the weather wonderful for this time of year?

Don’t say: “Yes, I’ve been sitting in the park gazing at the auburn hues of the leaves as they flutter to the ground.”
Do say: Something relevant and upbeat without getting poetic. Again, it demonstrates your attitude to a situation.If it is the most miserable rain-sodden day ever, a comment on how it is not so bad with the offices being so close to the station or, if it is sweltering outside, how welcome the air con is, would be fine. Or a few words on how the forecast is set to improve/worsen would also suffice.

Can I get you a tea or coffee?

Don’t say: “I’d kill for a double shot espresso after last night.”
Do say: Something that shows consideration for the interviewer. If they are clearly rushing down the corridor at the last minute, traipsing off to get you a drink is probably not what they want to do. If the drinks are already set up on the table, then it might be appropriate. If the interviewer starts complaining how bad the coffee is, do you join in? If you do, you may appear negative, disagree and you may look provocative. Sometimes small talk requires simply a laugh in the right place. 

A world without chitchat…
While small talk may be daunting, it is a useful part of the interview process. It would be a fairly sterile interaction without it, notes the article in Harvard Business Review. And without the friendly chitchat to ease into the interview, candidates could well flee to rival organisations that come across as ‘kinder’.For the recruiting firm, small talk is not just ‘unnecessary noise’ and some useful job-related information is being gleaned from the initial non-formal part of the meeting.The article argues that to make it fair, organisations could standardise the rapport-building questions asked, and formalise initial impressions ratings. We wonder whether it’s ever really possible (or desirable) to ‘structure’ this element of an interview or put a system around something as innately human and intangible as ‘impressions’.Good relationships don’t tend to start with standardisation – and human instinct, based on natural conversation, still has a role to play in revealing a good match for both candidate and recruiter (albeit there have to be safeguards to prevent discrimination or unconscious bias slipping in).It is in the interests of both parties to be genuine and true to themselves, albeit while emphasising their positive sides. The informal chat gives candidates and interviewers an opportunity to see how well they will work together. For sure, there aren’t many people who relish small talk, but it is how connections are made: if both parties gel, then the bigger conversations soon follow.  

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