Wirtschaftsenglisch: THE ART OF SMALL TALK

Dr. Ian McMaster, Editor-in-Chief of Business Spotlight © Gert Krautbauer

Dr. Ian McMaster, Editor-in-Chief of Business Spotlight © Gert Krautbauer

German-speakers often feel that they have more problems with the softer, social side of using English at work than with goal-orientated aspects of business, such as giving presentations, meetings or negotiating. In particular, making small talk with business partners can cause difficulties. A few simple tips can help.

Make, don’t have!

Semantics first. In English, you make small talk, you don’t have small talk or have a small talk. The ability to make small talk is a vital skill for business people. In many countries — for example, China — people put great emphasis on getting to know their business partners, and feeling comfortable with them, before making deals. In Britain and America, it is also common to “oil the wheels” of business with small talk.

To introduce…

To get small talk off to a good start, make sure you can introduce yourself clearly and simply. The best way is often to say your name, job and company: “Hello. Michaela Braun. I’m the marketing manager at the Arte hotel in Hamburg.” You also need to be able to carry out certain simple introductory conversations, such as the following:

Susan: How are you, Franz?

Franz: Fine thanks, Susan. And you?

Susan: Fine. How was your flight?

…or not to introduce?

In many situations, however, we make small talk without introducing ourselves at all. Imagine that you are visiting a company in London and someone says to you in the lift: “Nice weather, isn’t it?” (Voice going down at the end of sentence, because this is not a real question – both of you already know what the weather is like). In this encounter, it would be ridiculous to start by saying: “Good morning, Harald Schmidt from research and development at Volte in Dresden, Germany. Yes, you are right, the weather is nice.” Instead, an English person would typically reply: “Yes, lovely, isn’t it?” (Again, the voice goes down at the end of the sentence. Notice also the chance of adjective – from “nice” to “lovely” – which is typical in such exchanges.)

Be open

One of the most important skills during small talk is the ability to keep the conversation going. One way to do this is to ask open questions, which require your partner to answer with more than “yes” or “no”.  Practice using open questions — those that start with “when”, “where”, “how”, “how long” etc. For example: “When did you arrive in Germany?” or “What do you think of Berlin so far?”

Give feedback, add information

As the listener in a conversation, you can encourage the speaker by giving feedback. This can either be verbal — with expressions such as “I see”, “oh, that’s interesting” or “right” — or non-verbal noises, such as “uh-huh”. In small talk, silence is definitely not golden. Another way that listeners can help to make conversation more fluid is by adding extra information. For example, if you are asked a closed question such as “Is your hotel alright?”, rather than simply replying “yes”, you could say, “Yes, thank you, it’s very comfortable, and the service has been excellent.” You can help further by adding a question of your own: “Have you seen the swimming pool there? It has a very unusual design.”

Classic topics…

There are a number of classic topics for business small talk, and you should make sure you have the vocabulary to talk about them. These include: health (for example, “how have you been recently?”), travel (“how was your flight?”), accommodation (“how is your hotel?”), family (“how old are your children now?”), holidays (“where did you go on holiday this year?), and, of course, the weather (how’s the weather been here recently?”). Such vocabulary is often underestimated by business people, who regard it as not being part of “business English”. In practice, however, these are often the areas where business people have most difficulties. They know the jargon to talk about their jobs, but don’t know, for example, how to translate bewoelkt or Blitz und Donner. (Answers: “overcast” and “thunder and lightning” — in that order, although Blitz is lightning and Donner is thunder.)

…and less common ones

Religion, sex and politics are usually thought of as topics to be avoided during business small talk. However, while it is essential to be sensitive to your business partner’s culture and personality, it would be absurd to rule out three of life’s most interesting topics. More important is how you talk about these matters. For example, a question such as “I believe you have elections coming up soon, don’t you?” could lead to an interesting discussion.

A health warning

It is sometimes said that, in light conversation, “the British talk about the weather, the Germans talk about their health”. But remember that your business partners do not want to hear a detailed report of your medical troubles. I once greeted a young German student of business English in Munich with the innocent question, “Hi Maria, how are you?” and received the answer, “Not so very well, actually. I spent the whole night on the toilet.” This is more information than any business partner needs. Instead, she could either have pretended she was “fine” or, if she really wanted to let me know she wasn’t well, she could have said “actually I’m not feeling too good today, but I’ll be fine.”

Getting down to business

The transition from small talk to business can often be difficult. First, you need to be aware of how long you should spend on small talk. This will nearly always be longer than you would in a German-speaking context. But you need to be sensitive to the individual(s) to whom you are talking and not simply have fixed ideas such as “in Italy, people always make small talk for four and a half minutes before starting work”. To make the transition to business, you can use phrases such as, “Shall we get started?” or “Maybe, we should get down to business now.”

And more small talk…

Many business people make the mistake of believing that small talk comes only at the start, before the “real business”. However, although you should not waste time in meetings or negotiations, look out for signals from your business partners that they, too, are ready for a short break from business talk. Often, short interludes of small talk during the business section can help to improve relations and make it easier to reach the deal you want.

Dr. Ian McMaster is the editor-in-chief of the bi-monthly business communication magazine Business Spotlight (www.business-spotlight.de).

This article is published in partnership with Business Spotlight.