6 Small Talk Tips for International MBA Candidates

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I have been teaching English with B-Speak! as well as universities and corporations for the last 20 years and have found that even the most advanced speakers—natives as well—get stuck on the seemingly simple topic of small talk.

Comedy routines have been written about some of the things that can go wrong in informal conversation: saying the wrong thing (or committing a faux pas), wanting to leave, and even feeling trapped in an uncomfortable conversation. Despite its unassuming name, small talk is actually a crucial element of communication and one that demands much more than linguistic fluency. It is both essential to and omnipresent in American daily life.

Small talk tips for international business school students

By the time they reach our program, most international MBA candidates have Googled “small talk tips,” read a book on it, or maybe even done some formal or informal practice. In my opinion, small talk is a mindset as well as a skill.

Rest assured, you can become better at small talk. Below, I discuss my six most useful and effective small talk tips, which we put into practice with all of our B-Speak! students.

1. Give something

Start with a statement “What’s your name?” A simple question with a simple answer. Beginning with a statement “gives” your listener something to work with:

  • “Hi, I’m Leslie. I’m new here.”
  • “Good morning! We always have coffee at the same time, but we’ve never spoken before. My name is [Your Name].”
  • “Hello, how are you today? My name is [Your Name]. I’m new here.”
  • “Hi Angela. You might not remember me, but we met at Tom’s birthday party last year. I’m [Your Name].”

Drop the direct questions. Give your audience something first (information!). Yes, this may require taking a risk and being brave, but it will be a better, deeper conversation if you put more into it!

2. Monologue or dialogue?

Most MBA’s know this rule, but it can be forgotten during conversation. Include your listener(s).

If you are talking for more than 30 seconds, check in with gestures (eyes, head nods) or sounds (“right?”). Take some pauses so that someone else can jump in. Think of it as not talking but participating and digging deeper to find out more. That’s the mind frame: be interested in your listener/group. Curiosity is needed. Dig.

Asking questions can also make you more likable according to a 2017 Harvard study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

“We converse with others to learn what they know—their information, stories, preferences, ideas, thoughts, and feelings—as well as to share what we know while managing others' perceptions of us.”

When we ask more questions, we are perceived as higher in responsiveness, an interpersonal skill that is valued in business and in life! To put it simply, asking questions makes people feel better about themselves, because they sense you care.

To put this theory into practice, try the Harvard research-based “3 Question Rule.” When you meet someone new, ask them a first question, for example, “What is the most challenging aspect of your job?” Listen closely to their answer and then ask two follow-up questions. For example: “That does sound challenging. What strategies have you found to be more helpful in tackling this problem?” and “Yes, I can see how that strategy would help. What do you most enjoy about your role in the company?”

3. Don’t be afraid of pauses

Many times, people keep talking because there is a long pause—and they end up dominating the conversation for fear of silence.

On the other side, others are looking for a chance to jump into the conversation and are waiting for the right pause. We feel most comfortable in a conversation where people share the same length of pauses, and when they do not the result can be catastrophic!

Get comfortable with some silence! I just heard a great Hidden Brain podcast that talks about the importance of the “pause” in conversation titled Why Conversations Go Wrong. It’s worth a listen!

4. Have some go-to questions or statements ready

First step: eye contact Second step: …. ? Not sure what to say?

Try “advocating” or supporting another person’s statement. For example:

  • “This class was great,” could be followed by: “I agree. The macroeconomics section was particularly outstanding.”
  • “The speaker isn’t loud enough,” could be supported by: “You’re right! I am straining to make out what they are saying.”

You can also ask for advice:

  • “I’m new here. Would you recommend living on or off campus?”

Find some questions or statements that work for you. Here are 10 good examples to draw from and make your own. I also recommend this well-known TED Talk on how to speak up for yourself by Adam Galinsky.

5. Get over the awkwardness and step up to the conversation

Maybe you know Batman and his sidekick Robin. Don’t be the sidekick. Step up and be Batman. Set goals for who you would like to speak with and take chances to become involved.

I recommend this NPR Life Kit episode: Accept the Awkwardness: How to Make Friends (And Keep Them). In it, they discuss how its important that you accept the awkwardness of reaching out to new people and acknowledge that you can’t make new friends without getting vulnerable.

6. Leave strong

All conversations come to an end eventually. How can you do so gracefully? Think of it as a three-step process:

1. Acknowledge the conversation you are wrapping up: “Thanks for explaining E=MC2. I finally get it.”

2. State your need: “I need to mingle/return to work/get a drink.”

3. End on a polite note: “Hope to see you again”/See you at the next one/Have a great weekend.”

With practice, you can become better at small talk

Everyone, even the person in the corner, has something interesting to say. The trick is to find it, which means asking some open-ended questions.

Through “small talk” we are given the opportunity to learn new things and tap into the interests and experiences of classmates, coworkers, and clients. On a daily basis, “small talk” has made me laugh, learn new things, and helps me to understand others better. It has helped me to climb social ladders and network as well.

Give these six small talk tips some thought and try to develop a curious mindset that focuses on your audience.

Leslie Lamers is an mba.com Featured Contributor and English Coach with B-Speak English.

B-Speak! English offers individual online English coaching for graduate students and professionals. Originally created for international students at the Darden School of Business in 2012, B-Speak! now partners with numerous U.S. business schools to help prepare their students for the communicative challenges of the MBA classroom and the job market beyond. B-Speak! works with students at any stage of their MBA journey.


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