How small is small talk?

25Mar09

When we are among people we do not know, for example, let’s say at a non-profit fund-raising event, we turn to small talk to be polite or to prevent an awkward silence. We use the same few “small” questions over and over. “Where are you from?”, probably tops the list, being both small and safe. “What do you do?” is quite popular in the U.S. although not nearly as safe nor by any means, small.

Think about how you answer “what do you do?”. Many of us hesitate when we are asked that question. Maybe it’s because we haven’t written our elevator speech explaining what we do in a compelling and entertaining 10-second soundbite.

But we also hesitate because what we do is so much a part of our self-image. How we answer reveals not only what we do, but reveals how we see ourselves and how we want others to see us. And, the first few words that come out of our mouths are the most revealing.

Let’s say a person is SVP of Human Resources at the XYZ Company and he is asked “what do you do?”. His first words might be, “I am an attorney,” (which many heads of HR happen to be). He may say, “I am an HR executive”, or “I am the senior vice president of Human Resources at the XYZ Company.”

I was once with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company when he was asked this question. His first words were, “I work at XYZ.” For anyone that knows him, this answer makes complete sense.

My point is not to suggest that you draft a great 10-second commercial about what you do, although that’s a pretty good thing to have handy. My point is to encourage you to think about how you answer that question and what it says about you to you. Thoughts?

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