As I’ve said before in my blogs, I really dislike small talk—and, unless I’m a terrible judge of character, most people share my dislike. There’s just something soul-sucking about it: the questions you don’t really want answers to, the nodding and smiling when you really feel like screaming and making strangling monkey noises (oh, is that last one just me?), the empty compliments, and everything else about it combines to form something so monumentally unpleasant that entire Seinfeld episodes could be written about the subject.
Probably the biggest beef I have with small talk is that it’s ultimately not very meaningful. It’s social filler, heavy on surface and light on substance. It often feels inauthentic, generic and impersonal, like we’re just going through the motions and don’t really care about the content of the conversation. This is easily proven by providing an honest, thoughtful answer the next time someone asks you, “How are you?” Try it—watch the look on their face and see how they react. It will at least be good for a chuckle.
I don’t advocate doing away with small talk altogether—it’s the mortar that holds the bricks of conversations and relationships together. However, there are at least three places where I think we can safely eliminate the influence of small talk, for the good of all.
1. Cover Letters
Go back and reread the last cover letter you wrote. What does the first sentence say? If it’s something like, “Please accept this letter and the attached resume in application for the position of _____ at your company,” then you’ve already fallen prey to the small talk monster. Not only are you telling the employer something that they absolutely already know, you’re boring the pants off of them in the process! You are fully capable of coming up with something more engaging, more personal, more meaningful and more indicative of why you’re applying to that job—so write that instead!
Also, actual small talk is always a bad idea on cover letters. “How are you doing?” is not considered a good opening.
2. Your LinkedIn Connection Invitations
Want to let someone know that you don’t care about them enough to write even one or two sentences just for them? Send them the generic invitation when you try to connect with them on LinkedIn. The simple act of replacing the default text that LinkedIn provides with something that reminds the person you’re trying to connect with that you’re both people, with unique qualities and interests—possibly even overlapping ones—will make them feel like just that: a person, with something unique to offer. I know people who refuse connection requests on principle if the request isn’t customized. I’m thinking of becoming one of them myself.
Also known as relationship building. Small talk may seem like a necessity when you meet someone for the first time, but it’s actually quite easily replaced by insightful, open-ended questions and good active listening skills. With small talk, you don’t give any of yourself to the conversation. When building relationships, it’s important to consciously give the person you’re talking to a piece of yourself. Something small but genuine, so that they’ll remember you as a unique person with a personality, as opposed to “that student they talked to.” This can also make for good writing.
Are there other places we can slay the small talk monster? Feel free to say so in the comments, or @ me on twitter.
David is a Career Advisor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC.
Read David’s blog at SFU Career Services: Dave’s Diary
Follow David on twitter: @lindenforest