Many may find small talk topics with colleagues and team members daunting, unnecessary, or even cringeworthy. Maybe an attempt to connect in the past elicited awkward silences or miscommunication. Or perhaps there is some social anxiety about saying the wrong thing at play. Maybe you also feel like you don’t have time to chat. These situations can all be true. The key, however, to building solid relationships and rapport with those you work with is to try to take the time and connect with them. Small talk is a great entryway to real conversation, connection, and psychological safety.
A recent study of the daily actions of 150 employees by Rutgers’ School of Management drew some exciting insight into the benefits of small talk. The study determined that those who had engaged in small talk with their colleagues in the morning reported feeling more gratitude, energy, and motivation throughout the rest of the day.
Employees who work with feelings of gratitude, energy, and motivation, in turn, help form a more positive and collaborative corporate culture with open communication and high-quality connection over time. Essentially, when you connect with and enjoy the company of those you work with, you’ll find your work and work environment to be more exciting, engaging, and easy.
Not sure what to talk about with your colleagues? There are many light conversation starters that can help you break the ice and spark a conversation. Find common ground by discussing topics like:
- Crafts and Hobbies
- Food and Cooking
These and other great topics will help facilitate conversations and form social bonds with positive company-wide ripple effects. In this article, we’ll explore:
What Is Small Talk?
When a colleague asks you about your lunch or if you caught the football game the night before, this is an example of small talk. Anyone can initiate small talk to chat lightheartedly about casual (but appropriate) surface-level topics. Anything from pets to cooking to the weather is polite and neutral enough to spark a conversation. While chatting about the new Marvel movie may feel frivolous or meaningless at first, engaging in these light conversations with colleagues acts as a fantastic opening for deeper conversations. As a result, this can lead to increased opportunities to learn, collaborate, and innovate.
However, it’s important to also make a distinction between what small talk is not. Any topic that personally involves details of another, excludes people, or has a negative connotation or suggestion, is not small talk. That is gossip. Office gossip is an unfortunate occurrence in nearly all workplaces. A 2020 study showed that gossip accounted for almost 14 percent of all conversations among employees. Thwart the spread of gossip by reading further for suggestions on appropriate conversation starters that spark healthy connections at work.
Small Talk Topics to Use
No matter what technology and shiny new tools we use in our business, we should always come back to relationships.cathy engelbert
Starting a conversation with a colleague can be incredibly rewarding in the long run. That is unless you’ve sparked a conversation or made a first impression with a negative topic. Ideally, you want to observe or learn a little about your colleague ahead of time and then use that insight to lean into any of these conversation starter topics to initiate friendly chatter.
Maybe you’ve got a trip or vacation coming up, or you know your colleague does. This can be an excellent opportunity to connect and share travel tips, ask for suggestions, or get ideas. So open the conversation with some of these small talk questions:
- Do you have any fun trips or vacations planned?
- What’s the best place you’ve visited so far?
- What do you recommend doing around here on the weekends?
- What’s your funniest travel story?
If your colleague has family pictures up at their desk or set as their computer background, the odds are pretty good that family is important to them. Use this insight to find common ground and interests with your own family life. Spark the small talk by using anything you know or see about their family and lean into questions like:
- Does your family live around here?
- Can you recommend any family-friendly activities?
- I need new dinner ideas for my kids. Do you have a recipe that your kids love?
Crafts and Hobbies
Does your colleague play an instrument? Or do you know that they like to go fishing on the weekends? This knowledge is excellent to use as a conversation starter. Pick a topic that also interests you and see how they respond. If you also like to fish, they may just know the perfect spot to catch trout.
- It looks like it will be perfect weather for fishing this weekend. I need a new spot. Any suggestions?
- I heard you play the piano. I’d love to start. Any tips on how to get into it?
- Your desk is so organized. What’s your method for keeping things in order?
- I love how you decorated the lunchroom for the holidays. What inspired you?
If there’s one thing all sports fans have in common, it’s that they love to talk about sports! If you have a colleague that you know watches every football game or cheers for a particular baseball team, that’s a no-brainer conversation starter. Kick the conversation off with popular small talk questions like:
- Catch the game last night?
- Can you believe we lost to _____?
- It was a close game this weekend. Think we can make a comeback this season?
Pet owners love their pets. And if you ask, they’ll happily show you pictures and videos of their beloved friends. If you know your colleague has a pet, use that insight to connect with them and begin to learn more. Spark a conversation with questions like:
- Cute dog! What’s his name?
- I have a bird, too. What kind of bird is it?
- Do you know of a good local dog park?
Arts, Entertainment, and Books
This category provides a lot of mileage for small talk opportunities. Remember, almost everyone is into some kind of art, entertainment, or pop culture trend. Those who aren’t might be avid readers. Use this broad range of options to pick a topic you think might spark interest in your colleague. Initiate friendly chatter with questions like:
- Are you watching any great shows right now?
- What are some of your favorite movies?
- I see you’re reading ________. What’s it about?
- Did you watch the award ceremony last night?
- My commute to work is long. Do you have any podcast suggestions?
- I love music. Know of any good concerts coming up?
Hometowns/Where You Live
If you live and work in a bigger city or work remotely, your colleagues are likely from another town (or even state) than you. Asking them about where they are from and sharing about your hometown can be a great way to segue into a more meaningful conversation. Example small talk questions could include:
- How long have you lived here?
- Do you go back home to visit?
- What’s your favorite aspect of where you live/your city?
- Do you miss the mountains? The beach? Snow?
Perhaps the most obvious of conversation starters, the weather can strike a discussion with anyone at almost any time. If you work together in an office and there’s a storm coming, strike up a conversation. Or, if you’re expecting beautiful weekend weather, share your plans for enjoying it and see if others do the same. Get going by saying things like:
- It looks like it’s going to rain.
- Beautiful weather is forecasted this weekend. Anything fun planned?
- I can’t believe how hot it is today. Is it supposed to cool down?
Food and Cooking
If no other conversation starter seems to make sense, then food and cooking are great default topics. Eating is a basic human necessity and desire, and most of us love to share our favorite dishes, restaurants, and recipes. This topic is a perfect option for sparking a connection with a colleague. Try doing so by asking:
- What’s your favorite spot for lunch around here?
- I’m so tired of my lunches. Do you have any easy lunch recipe recommendations?
- Who has the best coffee around?
- Have you been to the new restaurant downtown yet? What did you think?
- Your lunch smells good—what it’s in that?
Celebrity gossip, new Netflix shows, and viral TikTok videos are all great examples of pop culture that work well as small talk. And the best part is that pop culture is constantly evolving, so there is almost always something new to discuss. Lean into it with things like:
- Have you seen ________ on Netflix yet? I just finished it last night.
- Crazy what’s going on with ________. Are you following that?
- I know you like dogs. Have you seen this funny dog video? It seems like it’s everywhere.
Small Talk Topics to Avoid
It is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart overhead—it is the unique intersection of both.david caruso
There are, of course, specific conversation starters you should try to avoid. Small talk is all about keeping the conversation light, fun, and casual. However, like the small talk examples below, some topics can make others uncomfortable, even if that’s not the intention. Therefore, it’s better to avoid the risk of accidentally offending or discouraging someone by avoiding these topics altogether.
Discussing finances with anyone besides a spouse or significant other is almost always inappropriate or uncomfortable. Sparking a conversation about personal financial matters may come off as intrusive and nosy in a work environment. Some might think you’re trying to get information about someone’s salary. Better to avoid this category entirely.
Right or left, red or blue. Our culture encourages picking sides. But in the workplace, we want to remain as unified as possible. As a result, discussing politics and the news can be very polarizing. Avoid creating a divide or riff in your company culture by leaving conversations around politics at home.
Similar to politics, conversations around religion and spirituality can be very polarizing. Thoughts around this topic tend to be personal and sensitive, and if approached carelessly, you may end up insulting or upsetting someone. Find more neutral common ground by initiating small talk with a lighter topic.
Small talk is supposed to be lighthearted and positive. Discussing death or the end of life, in any capacity, is heavy and can be emotionally triggering for others. Perhaps you didn’t know that your colleague’s mother just passed away. Or that their uncle is in the hospital. Avoid the risk of upsetting someone by not bringing up death at all.
Health and Appearance
Avoid discussions around age, height, weight, and health in the workplace, especially as conversation starters. We all experience growth and changes, and while this may seem like a normal commonality, it may be a significant area of concern or self-consciousness for others. In addition, sparking things to talk about based on appearance comes off as a little tone-deaf. And for many, it’s also considered rude.
Work or Personal Gossip
Unfortunately, gossip occurs in most workplaces. But, just because it is common doesn’t mean that it is appropriate. You should avoid discussing any work or personal gossip with your colleagues (unless it is celebrity gossip or relating to pop culture). Gossiping paints you negatively to others, and if your colleagues perceive you as a gossiper, they may feel reluctant to share details with you.
It’s okay to have a sense of humor, especially at work. Telling jokes or sharing funny stories can be some of the best ways to build bonds with others. But if your jokes often or ever involve details about race, politics, religion, sexuality, or anything else potentially controversial, offensive, or upsetting, avoid it. Instead, remember to stick to jokes and stories that are lighter and more relatable, and leave offensive jokes at home.
Unless you know your colleague well, avoid bringing this up on the job. Like health, religion, and politics, the topic of divorce is incredibly personal and can be upsetting. Divorces can be emotionally draining, stressful, and messy, so bringing up the subject may trigger those emotions. Avoid discussing divorce to ensure you’re keeping your conversation starters (and your colleagues) light and cheerful.
Conversation starters around sexual topics at work are a clear no-no. Doing so, or using language with sexual innuendo or suggestive references, is very likely to make others uncomfortable and may even have you reported to HR. Avoid this topic entirely.
5 Tips for Starting Small Talk
If you can laugh together, you can work together.robert Orben
You have a colleague in mind that you’d like to connect with, you’ve done a little bit of social homework, and you have a list of things to talk about prepared. Now it’s time to execute. Here are five tips for starting a conversation:
- Realize That It’s Not a High-Stakes Situation: There’s nothing to fear, sweat over, or cause panic. Remembering this is an easy way to get to know someone and build a working relationship. There’s no judgment or right or wrong way of doing it—it’s just two colleagues talking to each other.
- Have Welcoming Body Language: Don’t act timid and scared. You want to show confidence and warmth. It’ll help people open up to you and create better conversations. If you’re afraid, imagine the person talking to you is a longtime friend or family member. How would you speak to this person?
- Show Genuine Interest in Others: What do you want to know about this person? Have they said something in the past about themselves that you were interested in learning more about?
- Listen and Use Information They Share: Use active listening to develop more questions based on what they tell you. If your colleague says, “Oh, I grew up with sheep and always wanted to have some of my own. In 2018, my wife and I decided to buy a few and get started hobby farming.” You could then ask, “What does your wife think about the sheep? Does she also enjoy hobby farming?” The goal is to create branches off of what is said.
- Ask Open-Ended Questions: “Who,” “What,” “Why,” “How.” Never ask questions that could result in “yes” or “no.” The goal is to keep the conversation flowing. Be careful of talking too much about yourself and make sure you’re focused on asking the other person questions.
How to Wrap Up a Small Talk Conversation
Even the best small talk can drone on if it goes too long. Fortunately, if you’re on the job, you can quickly wrap up the conversation by redirecting the topic back to something work-related. You may notice this shift at the beginning of a company call or meeting. Before leading into a meeting agenda or an impromptu speech, leaders often begin the session with interesting things to talk about to get everyone comfortable before reconvening on the more formal topic.
If you’re not in a group or a formal meeting, you can say something like, “Well, it was great chatting, but I’ve got to get back to work,” or “I guess that email isn’t going to send itself, I’d better get back. It’s been great chatting!” You could even end the small talk openly to invite a continuation of the conversation later. Perhaps by saying something like, “Let’s see how the game goes tonight. Maybe tomorrow we’ll be celebrating!”
Building bonds with colleagues and forming strong business relationships is about communication. Having this communication skill is vital for keeping a company’s culture happy, strong, and productive. To learn more about this and other communication skills for how to make small talk, read “The Top 5 Communication Skills Every Leader Needs.”