Is There a Place for Small Talk
During Virtual Meetings?

Virtual Meeting

Small talk during virtual meetings – or any meeting – is the meet and greet phase of a conversation.  It helps find something in common, something on which to build the remainder of your time together.  It’s all about “breaking the ice,” about getting acquainted, or reacquainted. 

I recently received an email from someone who wished to discuss small talk during virtual meetings.  She made two important observations about the subject:  

  • “It can seem rude, when on a virtual screen, one or two participants are engaging in small talk but not everyone is included.
  • “Because people spend so much time in virtual space, small talk can feel like a waste of time.”

Her points are well-taken.  In the greeting phase of a virtual meeting, if the chit-chat between two people turns into a three-minute side conversation, others can feel excluded and annoyed that it takes up the scheduled meeting time.  

So why do people need small talk?  Dr. Carol Fleming, a communications author and coach, states it well.
“The purpose of small talk as we know it, is to send out the signal, ‘Will you be a friend to me?’ But we do it in disguise.  We do it in code.  We do it in a secret language, where we say, ‘Lovely day today, isn’t it?’”

Timing is Important

Before the noted start time, as people begin to filter into the meeting, it’s common and fun to exchange pleasantries with the “What have you been up to?” questions.  As the meeting comes into focus, small talk ends.  

If the meeting leader so designates, some virtual meetings extend into “after hours” and a few people resume small talk unrelated to the meeting.  Yes, “Tell me more about the earthquake you just experienced during our meeting!” makes for interesting small talk.  (This actually happened during a recent virtual conference in which I participated!)   

Depending on the purpose and size of in-person meetings, it’s customary to visit before the meeting begins.  And now virtually, some organizations and meeting leaders build these moments into the agenda to help people relax a little.  A moment of casual chit-chat can be vital in setting a friendly tone for the business at hand.

Appropriate Small Talk During Virtual Meetings

One primary difference in virtual and in-person meetings is that side conversations can be kept private by whispering or moving away from others when you are gathered in a conference room.  But on-screen, anyone can overhear what is said.

Adjusting small talk from an in-person format to a virtual format involves remembering these four guidelines: 

  • Keep it short, especially if it doesn’t involve everyone currently on-screen.  
  • Limit it to a friendly observation.
  • Ask a question that doesn't require a deep answer; the answer will be informational and not too personal.
  • Look at your camera rather than the screen in an effort to establish eye contact with other participants.  

A suggestion from the person who emailed me was, “Maybe we should change the whole process to something other than ‘small talk’.  Maybe just ‘meet and greet.’”  Whatever label we give it, the goal is to engage participants and set a positive tone for a successful meeting.

As we continue building bridges, helping others feel welcome, setting a positive tone often begins with our willingness to warm up with small talk during virtual meetings.  It really can be helpful, particularly in a virtual format in which not everyone is used to feeling comfortable.

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