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Small Talk/Big Benefits

Small Talk/Big Benefits

EACE Blog contribution by Alfreda James, Assistant Director, Graduate Student and Post Doc Career Services at Stony Brook University 

“Where are you from?” is a question from my childhood and adolescence. Southerners of a particular generation still use this query to establish family relationships and social connections.

small-talk-chitchatBut over 20 years of living in New York tells me that this seemingly innocuous question is not simple. The inquiry phrase–where are you from—translates into: Where do you stay?–in the minds of some individuals. For example, a student reports, “I’m from Brooklyn but I stay with my sister in Queens.”

The question might trigger bad memories. One student in a career exploration class requested a modification for an assignment related to influence of family in career development. His background included several foster homes, emotional instability, and substance abuse. Having spent years separating himself from a destructive past, he had no desire to recall the social environment of his adolescence. He was more interested in exploring where he might go in his future.

“Where are you from?”  is often an opening line during an interview or other encounter with an employer. We call this small talk or chit-chat or even schmoozing. But the habits of small talk developed and enforced by my hometown culture of Norfolk, VA  did not migrate to the 21st-century.

The card games and church socials where we constructed our identities changed to video or on-line hangouts and a young person is not likely face-to-face with an adult asking/demanding, “Where are you from?” Imagine, then, an international student—a person who has crossed the ocean, dived into another language, and a new culture—hearing the query, “Where are you from?”

Small-talk or conversation unrelated to the function of a job or profession confuses international students.  The casual conversation we consider essential to building professional relationships baffles newcomers to American culture. International students want clear (if a then b) rules for small talk. But small talk is unpredictable. We can advise our students to avoid topics like religion, sex, and politics during an interview. But what about small talk related to sports teams? My students ask if they should pretend to like a team if the interviewer is devoted follower of a sport.

Our students need to expect questions where there are no formally correct answers. As career professionals we need to listen to our students’ confusion about small talk.  Small talk questions are generally reflective inquiries requiring opinions and observations. But international students tell me that since they must invest 99% of their time in study or related research, there is little opportunity to ruminate. A highly linear approach—an education leading to a job—drives their thoughts and actions.

Complicating matters are different cultural norms. Students, particularly undergraduates, are not accustomed to sharing opinions because routine verbal back-and-forth between management and staff is not likely to exist in the home country. Transparency, open communication, and collaboration are benchmarks for success. And small talk is often the gateway for clear instructions and goal setting.

“Just tell me what the company wants,” declared one student. “Why can’t they just hire me,” asked another.

Yet artful small talk may calm nerves, allow a candidate to adjust to her surroundings, and even align herself with a company’s mission and values.

Alfreda S. James, PhD

Alfreda S. James, PhD

Alfreda S. James, PhD specializes in counseling graduate students about career options. She advises graduate students as well as undergraduates pursuing careers in public policy, government, and science. Dr. James is currently a member of the IDP Task Force and the WISE Admissions Committee. Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) provides four year scholarships to undergraduates pursing degrees in STEM disciplines. She served two terms as an evaluator for the Turner Graduate Fellowship Program. The Turner Fellowship provides financial support to underrepresented graduate students. Dr. James is also a member of the university’s HealthierU strategic planning committee, responsible for promoting wellness and health activities to over 14,000 employees.


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