Chit-chat. A thing that surprised me a lot when I first moved to England. What is it, why it surprised me and how to master the chit-chat skill?
A couple of parts to this article:
– My story of getting used to the British chit-chat
– Most common topics for chit-chat
– “Rules” of the British chit-chat
– How to get better at it if it’s not your natural preference or habit
I am going to be referring mostly to my experiences in the UK, because I think the chit-chat phenomenon is just extremely widespread here. You could use these topics in other parts of the world as well, but have a look around first to see if these work where you currently are. Despite of a surface similarity between how British and Americans do chit-chat/small talk, there are differences you would need to consider!
My experiences with British chit-chat
I might be biased living in England for the last two years, but I very much associate chit-chat with the British way of being. When I first came to London, I was overwhelmed by how easy it was for people to make a conversation about… well, nothing really. It was fascinating for me how people could spend 5 minutes talking very energetically about the weather or traffic. With smiles on their faces, friendly tone and like it was the most fascinating topic ever.
It’s not like I didn’t use to talk about the weather or about “nothing” back home, no. But these were the kind of topics where it was rather clear you did not have anything in common with the person and just trying to kill some time. Sometimes it was better and more comfortable for both people to just stay quiet (in the lifts or waiting room).
What was striking after moving to London was that people seemed to enjoy talking about the weather with everyone they encountered, say, in a cafe or in the kitchen at work on a Monday morning. It seemed like the best topic ever! And I was standing there thinking “what the heck?!” and wishing I could just make my coffee and go or stand in the lift quietly while going just 3 floors up.
Little did I know about the British culture!
By the way, did you read the book “Watching the English” by Kate Fox? If you’re working with the Brits or visit/live in the UK, it will be hilarious and insightful read and there is much more detail about many many things that are common for the Brits, backed up with years of Fox’s research. Recommend it!
Most common topics to start a chit-chat
Things I noticed about the British chit-chat is that the topics for the chit-chat are most times limited to just a couple of main themes. The longer I’ve been here, the more I saw how people interact, the clearer it got which topics to use when.
Most common chit-chat topics and rules were:
– Weather – of course! Whether it’s sunny or cloudy, warm or cold or windy, there’s always something you can comment on. Perfect for the lift-talk (or elevator ;)) when you only have around 30 seconds to spare, but also generally a safe topic for any setting. A simple comment like “Nice day today, huh?” or “Ooh, it’s freezing out there today! Winter is definitely coming now!” may encourage a friendly exchange of reinforcing comments about the weather. Purpose? Well, mostly just getting rid of this awkward silence especially if you don’t know the person. But also to encourage a friendly environment and build some kind of “relationship” or mutual acknowledgement of each others’ presence. Very often, it is simply an expression of what really is “I’d like to talk to you”.
– Traffic – Whatever way you are travelling to work or school, there is usually a comment you can make about your commute. Bus was late? Train was packed? Tube was surprisingly not that busy? Your walk was really nice? Had a nice run to work? Whether positive or negative experience – you can comment on it, encouraging the other person to share their today’s experience or referring to your negative experience by confirming they know how it feels or that they’ve had a similar story. Again, easy and universally used in different contexts. Note that even if it’s a negative comment it would usually be said with a kind of smile as if it was “just the way it is” and “well, nothing we can do, can we?” (see next point).
– The two points above bring us to not quite as separate category – complaint. Now, what’s important is that the complaint may only be a ‘light’ one, meaning that its purpose is just to start a brief conversation and not an actual helping or venting session. So if someone asks you “Hey, how are you?” you do not answer with listing all the shitty things that happen and how bad a mood you are in. Unless it’s genuinely a friend asking you and knowing that you are struggling with something at the moment. In the lift, queue or office kitchen just stick to “I’m good! How are you? Lovely weather we’ve got today, don’t you think?” and you’ll be fine. If you’d like to read more about why people complain (and it’s a whoooole variety of reasons!), I recommend one of the earlier articles on this blog, a very informative one.
– With your team colleagues, you can go even further and have a slightly longer conversation as you have more time than just in the lift or passing by on the corridor or on the street. Weekend is a good and safe topic. As far as weather or traffic can be used in the lifts or kitchen areas where you only have a moment to spare, weekend is a good one for longer chats on a Monday morning with your team or by lunch. It opens up the doors for further more meaningful conversation. “How was your weekend?” is a valid question between Monday-Wednesday, then also as of Wednesday you can already start asking “Any plans for the weekend?” . So it’s basically an evergreen topic and great of-the-shelf conversation starter! 🙂
– Monday and Friday – two days which are almost universally (in the office work world) perceived in a similar way. Or… should be, for the purpose of the chit-chat ritual. “Everybody” hates Mondays and “everyone” loves Fridays and can’t wait for the weekend (we often see emails and conversations starting with “Hi! Happy Friday!”). Also a great conversation starter just to mention “Friday! Finally, right?”, “Such a busy week! Glad it’s Friday already!” or “Well, Monday again… Only 5 more days to go <smileyface>!”. And there you go, the lift (elevator) chit-chat done!
Chit-chat is not just a time-killer in the UK, as it may be in many other places in the world. It really is the way people are here and expect you to behave. It’s important to remember that you are expected to join in this habit.
Have you ever been in a meeting with a British team? You surely saw that the first 5-10 minutes (if not more!) were spent on asking people how they are, what they’ve done on the weekend, how is their Monday going or how terrible the train delays were today. It’s a kind of a ritual, a habit, something that is expected and accepted by everyone. If you try to disrupt this by jumping straight into the topic of the meeting or problem-solving it’s just not going to work. People will still “interrupt” with the weather or weekend comments during the meeting, which in fact is even more disturbing.
Top tip here is to unofficially schedule in some time (5-10 minutes) for the chit-chat. Not as a part of the formal agenda necessarily (this might fall under ‘introductions’ or ‘introducing purpose or agenda of the call/meeting’ part), but simply knowing that in your head things will take more time. Or adding an extra 2-3 minutes to each part of the meeting schedule. Not obvious to your audience, but helpful for your planning to avoid overrunning meetings.
Been there, done that. So many meetings where I was tight on time and wanted to cut the chit-chat short to fit the meeting into a quick 15 minute discussion and they turned out to overrun a lot. I’ve learnt my lesson quickly!
What’s interesting is that people from different countries where this ritual is not that common or expected, but who work with the British a lot, start to do it as well. What’s more – they expect it from you! Once I was to run a call with mostly German/Austrian teams and one Brit on it and I thought “all of us just want to get updates, brainstorm about one thing quickly and get back to our days, so likely no chit-chat this time”. Turned out it was the German people who initiated the chit chat and I went along. Why? Likely because the call was initiated by the London team and they wanted to adjust to “the British ways”(very valid approach, by the way), but also due to the company’s ‘americanized’ culture which to some extent involves a short chit-chat anywhere in the world, with British ones being significantly longer.
The real struggle with chit-chatting
All sounds great, but how do you do it if it’s just not your natural way? How do you start doing this if you truly don’t see any sense in this?
Might seem like a trivial question, but very often it’s not the matter of people not being able to chit-chat. After all, talking about weather cannot be that difficult in itself! The key is that for many of us who struggle with chit-chat, it is ‘useless’, ‘stupid’, ‘time-wasting’, ‘strange’… and it may be due to our own values and preferences.
- We might not treat the chit-chat like trust or relationship building if our preference is to for example build trust by tasks, by seeing that someone performs well and our work is moving forward.
- We might not treat chit-chat as a genuine chat or interest in our weekends seeing that someone either asks the same questions twice or three times a day as we speak to them (chatting just to kill some time) or if they get unnaturally excited about a windy day, just because the unwritten rule is to make chit-chat a positive conversation.
- We might not treat chit-chat as a natural thing to do and so it may simply be tiring to initiate these conversations with everyone you meet at work in the corridor, lift or a kitchen, just because it so conscious.
This is not to say that all British people do. I’d say probably not. But they just go with it cause it’s natural, it’s how things are. For foreigners it might be a different story, it’s not so easy to go with something that is found to be uncomfortable, weird and/or stupid.
One question here is naturally how to do this and the article I wrote about networking might come helpful here, where the main point for the purpose of chit-chat I think would be to observe and copy other people’s behaviours and then adapt them to yourself for it to feel more natural.
The other question is how to accept it as a way of being, stop treating it as a necessity, stop wasting so much energy on doing it so consciously and begin to accept is as part of the culture you live/work in and adapt to it (that is, if we really want to adapt of course ;)). This is the real struggle for many people coming from direct cultures and there is no straight-forward answer. This is a process and you can initiate the mindset shift by getting curious about the functions the chit-chat has in the British society. You can either extract those from this article easily, read more about it or go and experience these conversations yourself.
Four simple steps to start mastering the chit-chat
- Observe how you feel in these conversations (Bored with it? Angry you need to do it at all? Amused by how people can even do it so much? Curious of the flow of the conversations? How do you feel about the chit-chat conversations?).
- Based on this try to list the triggers for these feelings. If you feel angry try to notice why. Is it because you don’t follow? Is it because you’re not good at it? Is it because this is new and you don’t feel like learning new ways now? Or any other reason? If you find it amusing, is it because you feel your ‘ways’ are better or maybe there is something in these conversations that really reminds you of other funny situations? Maybe there are some attitudes and deeply-grounded beliefs that you need to discover and adjust?
- From there, think of the things that make you feel at ease and comfortable during any other casual conversations that you run in life. What are these things? People smiling? Sitting or standing? Any particular topics? Any particular times of the day?
- See if you can incorporate any of the things that you are already comfortable with into the chit-chat conversations that currently pose a problem. Say, if you really hate speaking to people in the mornings (especially about “nothing”! 🙂 ) before your first cup of tea/coffee, try to avoid those lift conversations by taking the stairs, listening to something on the headphones and sticking to just a nod or smile (and therefore subtly indicating you’d rather be in your own world right now). You can start these conversations in the kitchens while you make this first cup of tea or coffee, no problem!
Wow! Did not expect this to be so long! But hope that this resonates and you found this article helpful.
Let me know your experiences with chit-chat! Especially if you are not a Brit and have had the chance to either live in the UK or work with British people.
What’s it like with casual conversations where you are now?
Related recommended reads: