In my previous post I discussed how important it is to build your small talk skills thereby enabling you to quickly build personal connections with others. However, it is important that you realize how easily one can destroy these new relationships.
Every country has different faux pas topics that you need to avoid.
Any of these topics are inappropriate small talk topics to discuss with Americans:
- Family Problems (i.e. divorce)
- Economic Problems
- Terrorism & War
For example, in India it is common to ask “How’s the health of your family?” This question would not be well-received in the States, as that kind of “intimate” question would be deemed inappropriate.
Money is a touchy topic and you need to treat it delicately. In some countries it is very common to ask, “How much do you make?” However, if you ask an American that question it is considered rude and offensive. Like family matters, we tend to keep things closer to the vest.
Sex is another topic highlights the American feeling on impropriety. What may be easily, casually discussed in a European country, for example, would cause an Americana to blush. You might be noticing the general theme of the American idea of “personal” information. We tend not to share this information in a first meeting, so topics like sex, family problems, divorce and death are not mentioned. It may be confusing to see “politics” on the list as well, because you likely hear people talking about politics quite often.
However, I exclude it from the list of small talk topics because it can very easily lead to an argument. Discussion of economic matters and opinions could lead to a similar outcome. Imagine, for example, that you happen to love the President and his policies, and the person you are talking to cannot stand him. Sparks will fly. The same applies to religion: with such a variety and intensity of opinions regarding religion, it is best to just leave the subject along in an initial small talk session.
If someone else brings up one of these topics, then it is your job to steer the conversation in another direction. The last thing you want is a feeling of negativity, and it is better to make the conversation slightly awkward for a moment than to fall into a tense discussion of an uncomfortable topic. Remember, the goal of your conversation is to build that connection where eventually can lead to a job, not a shouting match.
I believe that the hardest part of a conversation is having the courage to start it. It is intimidating to have to open with an engaging, interesting topic. Of course, that’s usually the first thing that people forget when they are nervous. So if you tend to have trouble doing that, I’d suggest trying each of these conversation openers:
- “Hi, I’m new to (city name) and am looking for amazing new experience this weekend. Do you have any suggestions?” (works even if you have lived there for 10 years)
- “Did you do/like/dislike the reading we had to do?” (for students)
- “Did you hear about…?” (refer to a recent event most will have knowledge about)
- “Do you know____________?” (make a connection with a mutual acquaintance)
- “Do you always get the same drink?” (coffee shop introduction)
- “I like your shirt/hat/sweater/shoes, etc. Where did you get them?” (everyone loves compliments)
Find out which works best for you and reuse it. I strongly believe in Pareto’s principle and know that 20% of the things I say to start a conversation will lead to 80% of my success. So today I want you to try out as many of these as you can and figure out which works best for you. Set a personal goal to talk to 20 people.
Then I want to hear how your tests go! Leave a comment below with your favorite opening line!
Michael Miller is the author of 4 Weeks To Your American Dream Job and the founder of Culture Adapt, a career education and consulting firm focused on international business people who are eager to work in the USA.