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:
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?’”
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.
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:
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.