Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Small talk vs. large talk

Autumn at Union College
This  past weekend I was sitting in my son's college dorm room (we were up for our first Family Weekend) when I heard two of his friends pass one another in the hall: "How was it?" "Awesome!" "That's great, dude!" Their tones of voice conveyed that they knew exactly what they were talking about, even though I hadn't a clue. Sounded like a casual conversation between buddies. But it was really a classic example of the glue of private conversation. And it is pretty much the only type of speech that is not public speaking.

Two weekends ago I was giving a talk to Fulbright scholars from abroad who are here in the U.S. for graduate and post-graduate research, teaching, and study. My focus was on public speaking and presenting. The sponsors of the event were concerned that I was spending too little time on "interpersonal communications;" they felt their visiting scholars might be having some cross-cultural communications problems with fellow students and faculty. Of course I had planned to cover this in my session. "Interpersonal communications" was, in fact, one of the bullet points on slide #2. But it was under the heading "Public Speaking" so I guess that threw them off. I am not a fan of PowerPoint, so only essential topics (and a few choice graphics) go up on my slides. And interpersonal communications was definitely on the agenda.

But I saw their point. Most people do not think of quick chats in a professor's office or study group meetings in the food court as public speaking. But they are! So are those quick exchanges with co-workers on your way to a meeting or conference calls with your best client.

Anytime you are not engaged in private conversation you are speaking publicly. You are representing whatever business/party/ethnic group/nationality you bring to the table. Be aware of that. Unless you are connected through kinship, or well-established bonds of trust (which can form relatively quickly when you are all in the same boat, as in a first year dorm), your words matter. Organized thought matters. Articulation and clarity of speech matters. People will judge you on what you say and how you say it. Even in--or maybe especially in--those small group and one-on-one encounters. So do not take these exchanges as casually as two good friends meeting in a dorm hall. Unless you know someone well enough to engage in the relationship-maintaining communication often derided as "small talk"--where non-verbals are so strong the words almost do not matter--you are speaking publicly. Breathe. Think. And speak accordingly.

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