Making Small Talk at Holiday Events

The holidays are not just a time for great food. It also is an opportunity to build your job network.
The holidays are not just a time for great food. It also is an opportunity to build your job network. (Aviation Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class Monica Walker/U.S. Navy photo)

Whether you are a job seeker or have a civilian career in place, inevitably you will find yourself at holiday gatherings -- social events, parties, business celebrations and community gatherings -- this time of year. When attending these events, people introduce themselves by engaging in small talk.

What Is Small Talk?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines small talk as "light or casual conversation; chitchat." When you meet someone new and the conversation starts as an exchange of pleasantries, we call that "small talk."

For veterans transitioning out of a military career, the idea of starting, maintaining and ending conversations with strangers can feel unnerving and intimidating. Here are some tips to successfully navigate small talk at holiday events:

Initiating Small Talk

When you approach someone new, the first step is to initiate conversation. Instead of waiting for them to say something to you, extend your hand, introduce yourself (follow my recommendations for an effective elevator pitch), and begin a pleasant conversation.

Effective conversation starters ask open-ended questions (designed to elicit a conversational response other than yes/no answer). For instance, you might ask:

  • What do you think of this year's event?
  • How have your holidays been so far?
  • This is my first time at this event. Any suggestions for how to make the most of my time here?
  • What do you do?

If the person you've approached and initiated conversation with gives you short or abrupt responses, it's possible they aren't interested in talking. Avoid taking it personally. Just move on to someone else.

Maintaining the Conversation

Listen carefully to the responses you receive and build off them to keep the conversation going. Follow-up questions might include:

  • Your work sounds fascinating. How did you start your career?
  • Your company sounds interesting. How does someone build a career in your industry?
  • What made you decide to start a company? Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

Be sure you are responding in an engaging, interesting way, too. Don't make the other person do all the talking; that can feel more like an interrogation, rather than a conversation. Small-talk expert Debra Fine offers this insight: "If you've largely ignored your conversational responsibilities, it's time to take ownership. You cannot rely on the other person to carry the conversation for you; a monologue is a chore and seldom very interesting."

Instead, keep the conversation going by offering questions such as:

  • This is my first time at this event. Your suggestions are amazing. One thing I've found since leaving the military is that networking events are focused on meeting people and starting business relationships. Any tips for following up with people I meet here?
  • I've learned that, in a job search, who you know is critical. Do you find this, too? As a civilian, what has been your go-to tip for successful networking?
  • Transitioning from a military to civilian career has taught me a lot about people and process. I'm passionate about helping veterans make a smooth transition. Do you know anyone I could talk to about starting this work?

Ending the Conversation

When the conversation runs its course, or you are ready to move on and talk to someone else, ending the discussion is sometimes tricky. If you've been talking to someone who is shy and reluctant, they might not want to face the possibility of having to make different small talk with a new contact … and will hold on to your established conversation for dear life.

When you are ready to move away from the conversation, some parting statements could include:

  • Thank you for the pleasant conversation. I've really enjoyed our chat. It's time to let you meet other people. Have a great rest of your day.
  • I've enjoyed learning about your business. Thank you for your candor. May I follow up by email to continue our conversation?
  • Thank you for the tips and advice. I'll be sure to put them to good use. I promised myself I'd meet three new people here today, and I have one more to meet. Have a great rest of your day.

Making small talk can feel intimidating and even overwhelming if you aren't used to it. Instead of letting fear take over, practice displaying confidence and approachability. Small talk is just the start of the conversation, Some conversations will turn into robust networking relationships (and possibly career moves), and others will fizzle out. That's how the process works.

Lida Citroën, a branding expert based in Denver, has made a career of helping people and companies create new or enhanced identities. She is passionate about helping veterans learn how to compete for careers in the civilian sector. A TEDx speaker, Lida presents her unique personal branding training programs across the U.S., at military installations and events. She is also the author of the bestselling book, "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition."

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