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Golden Guide Career Advice: Learn the Stop-and-Chat

Lydia Lazar

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Golden Tip No. 9: Practice Small Talk with Strangers

Golden Guide Career Advice is a new series from the AMA in partnership with Lydia Lazar, author of Dean Lazar’s Golden Guide: Pragmatic Career Advice for Smart Young People. A new tip in the series will be posted each Tuesday—all tips are available here.

Do you have a career question? Contact Lazar at deardeanlazar@gmail.com—the answer may appear in a future post.

Use any opportunities that present themselves to hone your small-talk skills. Practice chatting people up in line at the grocery store, on the bus or in a waiting room. Smile, try to engage and be prepared to be rebuffed a few times. Instances in which you get a positive response will more than make up for the times when people are not interested in talking with you.

Initiating small talk in low-stakes situations is the best way to practice your basic communication and networking skills. Your efforts to connect to other humans in real time may not always be reciprocated, but keep at it. Over time, you will succeed more often than not and build confidence for professional networking.

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Start with people who are not otherwise occupied on their phones or tending to small children—although interacting with children can often help open up conversations with their parents. You can comment on just about anything—an incomprehensible track announcement at the train station, for example—but be sure to stay away from politics, sex and religion.

You may compliment someone’s shoes or bag. If it’s not too contrived, ask for advice or help with something. For example, if you are in line for coffee at Starbucks, ask if they’ve had a particular drink. Or if you find yourself waiting for the elevator at the gym with someone who was in class with you, you might say something about the instructor: “I like it when Jill leads the stretch, don’t you?”

Essentially, you are trying to make a comment that connects with the other person and invites a civil response. The back-and-forth may continue for a few more lines, or it may not, but either way, you’ve spoken to a stranger and taken a step toward building your networking muscles.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.


Dean Lazar's Golden Guide

For more career tips, read Dean Lazar’s Golden Guide: Pragmatic Career Advice for Smart Young People, available on Amazon and at your local bookstore. Do you have a career question? Contact Lazar at deardeanlazar@gmail.com—the answer may appear in a future post.

Lydia Lazar is founder and president of LHL Consulting. She is the former associate dean for recruitment and career services at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and previously, dean of international law and policy overseeing international student admissions (LLM) at Chicago-Kent College of Law.