How to Successfully Handle Small Talk in the Interview

How to Successfully Handle Small Talk in the Interview

By Jack J. Kelly



Much is written about the traditional interview itself.  Since interviews don’t take place in a vacuum, there are numerous other conversations and casual meetings that take place which are important as well.  Also, during the interview, you need to know how to navigate small talk, polite chatting and personal questions.


While there is a wealth of information to help you prepare for the interview, nobody talks about how to perfect the art of small talk during and in-between interviews.  Well, nobody except me.  I am quite comfortable with awkward, uncomfortable and sometimes cringy periods where people are unsure what to say or do.  Here is when the art of small talk comes into play.  A lot of us are not too gifted at small talk.  It usually comes out like:

Person A: Hello, Jack how are you?  It’s so good to see you.  How is the wife and kids?

Me:   Hi. Good.


Person A: Did you watch the big game last night?  That play was unbelievable, right?  Do you think it was a bad call by the ref?

Me: No.


Person A: Well, it was great catching up.  Oh, my daughter just  graduated from UMass.  She loved it.  She is looking for a job on Wall Street.                  Isn’t that what you do? Maybe you could talk with her, give her some ideas like what to focus on, or maybe you have a job for her?

Me: I gotta go.



To succeed in the interview you need to establish a relationship with the interviewer as well as with all the other peripheral, annoying people that you really don’t care about.  These folks include the tangential company employees that you may possibly interact with five years after you are offered, accept, and start the job.  It is necessary to engage with the administrative staff, secretaries, security guards and other similarly situated employees.  With respect to these people, a simple casual conversation about the weather, a recent sporting event, cute puppies and kittens, any traffic you experienced on your way to the interview, or a news item which does not hinge on a political or hot-button issue will suffice.


Don’t get carried away with the small talk. It is very easy to start losing your cool venting about the overcrowded train ride that was three hundred degrees hot and stuck in the tunnel for twenty three minutes. Then launch into a diatribe concerning how terrible New York City is in the summer, and why can’t the politicians do anything about it, and it was so much nice when you lived in another state.  The interviewer has her own problems and doesn’t want to add you to the list.


Be cognizant of the fact that there is such a thing as being too enthusiastic at a job interview. If the hiring manager has a photo of her young children on her desk, lavishing praise about how cute they are comes across as weird and creepy.  If you then start dramatically gushing over the beautiful building’s architecture, the wonderful artwork on the walls and amazing views, it becomes obvious that you are being a phony. There is a fine line between tactful compliments and insincerity.


Here is a little pro-tip, strike up conversations with people you meet along the way to the interview. Speak with the smelly guy at the newsstand in the subway station where you buy mints to freshen your breath.  Chat-up the chubby kid that you are squished against on the crowded subway car. Shoot the breeze with the security guys who check your identification, take your picture, and give you the peel-and-stick label which you are supposed to put on your suit’s breast pocket (insider tip – don’t stick that goofy picture ID on your clothes, it looks foolish. Instead leave it on while you are in front of the security people and then strip it off and put it into your pocket once you are out of the guard’s eyesight). Engaging in these little conversations warms you up for the interviews. It is like a baseball player warming up and throwing pitches before heading out to the pitcher’s mound.


Even if it is outside your comfort zone, force yourself to be nice, pleasant, outgoing but not too intrusive, clever, and polite with everyone.  If you don’t possess any of these traits, pretend you do.  Everyone has a friend who is an expert schmoozer.  Just ask him for some lessons or watch him in action.  You need to let your personality shine through, (unless it is unpleasant, then be someone else).  If your charisma stinks, work on getting a new one.  After all, nobody wants to hire someone who is incapable of carrying on a conversation, or a pain to deal with.


When a person hires someone, they want to feel warm and good about it.  They desire an associate to go to lunch with.  A colleague to cover for them when they are hung over and trying to hide in their office with the shades drawn.  Furthermore, if you’re being interviewed by ancillary people that you might actually end up working with once hired, they’ll want to make sure that you’re the type who would fit in well with them too.


Showcasing your personality is not so easy when you’re focused on job-related specifics.  One suggestion is to help the interviewers see who you are as a human being and segue the conversation towards outside of work activities.  According to job site Glassdoor, “what are your hobbies?” is among the most common interview questions.  This type of question could also inadvertently get you into an interview quicksand and ruin your chances of getting the job.


Let’s suppose your favorite hobby is volunteering for a political cause.  You may believe that this is the best, most worthwhile goal in the world.  Meanwhile, the interviewer may hold a diametrically opposed political view than you do, and is not too happy about your outside of the office pastime.  I see this all the time.  Job seekers prominently put on their resumes which congress person, governor or presidential candidate they spent time campaigning and ringing doorbells for to help them win.  I wince when I read it, thinking that the hiring manger would be wound-up about this, if she was voting for the politicians from the other party.  When the job applicant proudly brings up his political work, it further compounds the problem.  Certain things like politics are better left unspoken and off the resume.


As a general rule, you should stay clear of certain third-rail subjects such as religion and politics.  Also, when it comes to family, be especially careful.  If you brag about leaving the office early to coach your kid’s baseball game, the interviewer may not have children, live in the city, and get angry about your sense of entitlement.  He views bolting out of the office at 3:00 pm to catch the LIRR to your Long Island suburb on a sunny spring day as incredibly rude and inappropriate.  Moreover, he is not a baseball fan but a soccer supporter, and visibly cringes when you brag about your ten year old kid’s pitching style.  He thinks that your priorities are crazy, and would now not consider calling you back for a second interview.


Be careful about other hobbies too.  For example, I recall interviewing a person for my company, and he mentioned that he comes into the office at about the crack of 9:30 am, since he takes a morning jog.  Additionally, he was pleased to inform me that he takes a long lunch to go work out at the gym.  I was seething.  I’m in the office by 7:30 am and eat lunch at my desk.  Yes, I am a little maniacally compulsive, but I knew right away that his priorities were far different than mine.



Another suggestion is to try to get the interviewer to open up first, and then follow their lead.  If you share a common interest, then the conversation will flow naturally.  You may also find out that they do things or have opinions that you don’t agree with, or feel comfortable with.  Although you like the company and job, you may not approve of the interviewer’s views on immigration, transgender bathrooms, legalized marijuana, statues, and other deal breaker attitudes.



Finally, before you attend an interview, read-up on the laws, with respect to what you are, and are not, allowed to be legally asked by a perspective employer.  For example, interviewers can’t inquire about your religion, marital status, or if you have children.  If these questions come up, you don’t have to answer, even if it’s awkward.  


Discussing your personal life and engaging in chit-chat during a job interview is challenging, but if you are prepared you can navigate the landmines.

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