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Small Talk, So Underrated

Small Talk, So Underrated

You are welcome here.

DEI efforts to address inclusion.

These are big concepts that deserve big discussions on campuses everywhere. Discussions with senior leaders setting policies and developing programs to make everyone on campus feel involved and connected.

And to make all that happen, that feeling of being welcome and included, will rely on some of the small things that often are met with eye rolls. Yet, these small things are really important to this whole inclusion effort.

You know that inside joke and the trendy celebrity stuff you are not on top of? The conversation that just kind of left you like roadkill as it blew right by? Maybe silly. Perhaps kind of uncomfortable. Happens to all of us. And it happens to your new students frequently. Domestic, yes. International, all the time.

If you think small talk is meaningless, think again.

In our work for a large, highly ranked Midwestern institution, we were talking with Pham (not his real name). He traveled from Vietnam for his US studies. A natural networker, smart, interested in business, he chose to major in Business Management Information Systems and Finance. With that degree, it is no wonder he was snapped up by Deloitte where he currently works as a Senior Consultant in Tax Management.

To hear Pham tell it, connecting to the US community with small talk was critical to his success. He came to understand this during his studies as he tried to connect with the other international students and with his American peers. He found he was struggling to make friends.

Read on for Pham's perspective and our tips for getting these really important conversations started. It is all about personal and student success. 

The Challenge?

He did not know how to talk about pop culture and join in the fun conversations that were going on all around him. “No one knows who you are unless you can do small talk,” Pham shared during one of our conversations. For his alma mater, the Intead team developed and is executing a campaign strategy to recruit students from Vietnam, among other countries. Pham agreed to share his perspective as an international student and now, career professional.

“There’s an extra effort non-native speakers need to make. I found my way to making friends by understanding music, celebrities,” Pham says. He broke down the barriers to friendship by learning small talk. He went on to tell us how he leveraged his newfound network to open important doors. “Finding that common ground to get to know each other was really important.” That network helped him make the connections that resulted in his current position at Deloitte.

Did we mention he is smart?

Putting this into Practice

Engaging with others you don’t know can be exceedingly difficult. New students on campus, regardless of where they hail from, have some hard work to do to fit in. And you know this because you put a tremendous amount of effort into your student orientations.

Your institution does all it can to attract motivated students. You attract them with the promise of an amazing academic experience. And, importantly, the students select your institution over others because they want the academics, and they hope to develop a satisfying (at minimum) social experience.

Your team knows this and delivers a student orientation to introduce folks to each other, break the ice, help them find their way around campus and the bureaucracy inherent to joining any institution. The ability to engage has a lot to do with personal self-confidence, one’s sense of position of authority amongst others in the room (face to face or virtual). And for most of us, our ability to engage depends on being invited.

The reality: so many small things can act as welcome invitations for inclusion or those hand-in-the- face moments that prevent engagement. Small talk, done well, is such an important starting point for inclusion.

As we head into the AIRC conference next week, where learning, connecting (the dreaded “networking”) are really what it is all about, the value of some good small talk to get the party rolling cannot be overstated. You may roll your eyes at the next person who says, “Hey, how about this weather, huh?” But maybe if you see that as simply a way of getting things started, you can help it become a valuable conversation.

For yourself, or when thinking about your institution’s efforts to improve student experience, a few tips:

Open ended questions work wonders and show respect for your conversation partner(s). Thought provoking stuff is typically good, though it can be a bit challenging for some. Be ready to give anyone struggling an easy out.

  • Easier: “We’ve all been through a lot this past year. Are there any shows or activities you’ve found particularly helpful?”
  • More Challenging: “We’ve all been through a lot this past year. What would you say your most valuable success has been?”
  • Most Challenging: “Do you think there’s anything we can do to help make this whole Kim Kardashian/Pete Davidson thing work? Or should we be more focused on helping Kanye?” ; -)

Despite the fact that the last bullet point will date this blog in a matter of days, we are making a point. If you are engaging new people at a student orientation (or a conference), giving them an easy entrance into a meaningful conversation is going to be really, really welcome. Making them feel like an outsider who doesn’t get the joke is going to present a hurdle, or worse.

All of the advice on supportive small talk suggests avoiding hot button topics like personal finances, religion, death, sex, and politics.

Top of the list for safe and supportive small talk topics include the weather/surroundings, arts and entertainment, family and food, travel and hobbies, and perhaps celebrity gossip. That last one may give some guests pause due to a lack of connection to the topic – the same way international students react to discussions about American sports (a non-starter for so many).

Choosing inclusive topics that respect where your discussion partner is and using fun and intriguing open-ended questions put others at ease and will develop valuable connections. Maybe you’ll even land a cool job at Deloitte!

Let us know if you have any good small talk openers that have worked well!

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