You just heard from your boss that you’ve been chosen to attend an international meeting in Madrid. You’re immediately flattered and excited about the opportunity. However, once the initial excitement passes, you start to think about it a bit more. A slight fear starts to creep in. You begin to realise that, while you are there, you’ll have to speak with people you barely know about topics other than business. You’ll have to be polite and social even though you know you won’t feel like being either. In short, you’ll have to do the thing that Finns dread most: You’ll have to small talk.
Finns and Small Talk
Here’s the good news: You are probably much better at it than you think. There’s a commonly held view that Finns don’t small talk, but this is largely untrue. Finns, just like people everywhere else, do talk about the weather, they also talk about sports, their minor illnesses, and their pets. The difference with Finns, however, is they find it entirely acceptable not to small talk, and many choose this option. In Finnish culture, you will not be considered impolite or boring if you opt out of a small, meaningless conversation. In English-speaking culture, the opposite is true, and that’s why small talk is important.
Personally, I admire the Finnish way of doing it, although it took me about fifteen years of living here to reach that point. Your international colleagues, with their limited knowledge of Finnish culture, might be less appreciative. To them, you might come across as impolite, standoffish and perhaps a little bit dull. That’s not who you are, but how are they supposed to know?
As painful as it may seem, small talk is an essential English language skill you must develop. You must find a way of getting out of the Finnish way of thinking (giving people space, not intruding on others’ privacy, keeping it meaningful) and getting into the English way of thinking (being social, showing you’re interested, establishing a connection). If you think of it as theatre, you have embraced the role of the social, friendly small-talker.
Five Small Talk Tips
With this in mind, I have developed five tips that Finns should follow when they find themselves in situations that require small talk.
1. Don’t say “Nothing special”
Finns love to say ”Nothing special”. It’s the default response to too many ‘What’ questions. What your English teachers at school didn’t tell you is that ”Nothing special” is just about the worst response you can give. It’s the ultimate conversation killer. It sends a signal to the other person that you’re not interested in carrying on with the conversation. It might also lead them to suspect that you don’t have anything interesting to say. You can be fairly certain that they won’t think you are some kind of deep thinker who is simply not interested in trivial conversation. It almost always leaves a negative impression.
Compare these two short dialogues:
a) ”What did you do during your holiday?”
”Well, I spent most of my time at the summer cottage. I also took a lot of day trips.”
b) ”What did you do during your holiday?”
Example b) gives the person you are talking to no place to go. You are stuck at the dull, grey, dead end of a conversation. An awkward silence is sure to follow as your speaking partner frantically tries to find a way to keep the conversation going or, more likely, leave it altogether. Example a), on the other hand, is more like a highway to further conversation. It gives your speaking partner alternatives for what to say next. This leads us nicely into tip number two.
2. Respond in such a way that the conversation can move forward
In the example above (not the nasty, no-good ”Nothing special” one), you have succeeded in your role as a master small-talker. Your speaking partner can then process what you said and, with only a small amount of effort, keep the conversation moving forward. This is usually done in the form of a question (“Oh, I didn’t know you had a summer cottage. Whereabouts in Finland is it?”) or a statement that you can then respond to (“You’re lucky to have a summer cottage. I’d love to have my own one day.”).
Now the conversation moves back to you, and it’s your turn to try to keep it moving forward (“It’s in Kuusamo. Have you ever been there?”). And on you go. Once you’re able to master this important skill, most small talk just flows naturally.
3. Try to gauge what your speaking partner is interested in, and steer the conversation in that direction
No-brainer statement of the century: People enjoy talking about things that they are interested in. An essential small talk skill is the ability to recognise what the other person is interested in and steer the conversation in that direction. Three safe and neutral topics that people enjoy talking about are: their hobbies, their families/kids, and their pets.
Look at this example:
”It looks like spring is finally here.”
”Yes, that’s true. No more walking the dog in the cold and windy weather.”
”Oh, you have a dog? What breed?”
You did a good job by starting the conversation with a safe topic (the weather). The person you are talking to did a good job by answering in such a way that you could respond (“No more walking the dog in the cold and windy weather.”) And you, because you’re awesome at this, did yet more good work by recognizing that your speaking partner probably enjoys talking about their dog and you steered the conversation in that direction.
4. If you are struggling for a small talk topic, talk about your immediate surroundings
Even native English speakers sometimes struggle to initiate small talk. A very effective way to overcome this is by saying something about your immediate surroundings, which will then, hopefully, spark the conversation. Here are some examples:
”This is a beautiful place, isn’t it?”
”I didn’t expect so many people to be here, did you?”
”I’m trying to decide if I like that painting or not. What do you think about it?”
”It’s a nice view from here, isn’t it?”
You get the idea.
5. When you want to leave the conversation, do so politely
Thankfully, small talk can’t go on forever. If you want to or have to leave the conversation, a good phrase to have ready is ”Sorry, I have to…” (e.g. “Sorry, I have to get something to eat. I haven’t eaten all day.“ or “Sorry, I have to use the bathroom.”). Extra bonus points are given if you can tack on something nice like ”It was nice talking with you.“ or ”Thanks for the interesting conversation.“ or ”I really enjoyed talking to you about…“ before leaving the person (e.g. ”Sorry, I have to use the bathroom, but thanks for the interesting conversation.”).
Small talk, just like grammar, reading comprehension or building your vocabulary, is an important language skill that needs to be practised and developed. The most challenging aspect for Finns is to temporarily rid themselves of their Finnish mindset and get into the English speaker way of doing things. Most Finns, despite the widespread myth that they can’t, already have the ability to small talk. The most important thing is to get past your inhibitions, put these tips into practice, and have faith in your abilities. If you do that, your business trip to Madrid, or anywhere else where you have to speak English, will be a lot more enjoyable and stress-free. And who knows, maybe people will even be impressed by your small talk skills.
Writer: Kevin Hanley (professional English language trainer)