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Make Small Talk at Weekly Grad Writing Center Series

October 29, 2019

A large group of students talking together in Graduate Student Life LoungeBy Anna de Cheke Qualls 

Small talk can be awkward, but it is often the first step to building relationships and networking. It is an essential skill that international graduate students and postdocs on the campus have been asking to practice in a safe space.

This fall the Graduate School Writing Center (GWC) launched its weekly “Making Small Talk: Conversation Hour,” coordinated by Postdoctoral Researcher in the Graduate School Thomas McCloskey. GWC Director Linda Macri developed the format of initiating and continuing conversations.

“We hear from all graduate students and postdocs--both international students and American-born students--that knowing how to make 'small talk' -- at job interviews, at conferences -- is challenging," Macri said. "As the Graduate School Writing Center has expanded to offer more explicit support around oral communication, we thought we could couple that support with something that would give students a chance to engage with other graduate students across disciplines and cultures.” 

Each week, pairs of graduate students or postdocs explore more skills - listening, starting conversations in small groups, and how to make small talk at conferences.

“Language might not be the only barrier in small talk; cultural and personality differences also play a role," says Yun-Ting Kao, a postdoctoral fellow in Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics. "Soft skills like small talk are very important, but up to this point, I have not come across a class covering this topic, and as a result, it has been hard to move beyond my comfort zone.  I can definitely recommend this workshop to others; you have the opportunity to learn the small talk technique, embrace cultural differences, and practice.” 

Yiming Zhang, a graduate student in the Department of Geographical Sciences, thinks it's important to attend this program because she'd like to improve her English.

"As a foreign student, I do not know how to begin and continue conversation with native speakers," she said. "I am very nervous because I think I will make a lot of mistakes when I am talking and concerned about expressing myself clearly. I would like to communicate with others fluently and confidently.”
As the Small Talk series grows, McCloskey and Macri hope that participants continue to hone soft skills that are instrumental in successful academic and professional development – and one rarely addressed in formal graduate education settings.

“The Graduate School is addressing this gap by giving students strategies for these kinds of conversations, as well as informal, relaxed opportunities to practice," McCloskey said. "Up to now, students and postdocs were able to explore the cultural differences of small talk from around the world, meet new people, and engage in fun conversations. We will be building on this momentum throughout the term.” 

Graduate students can join the Making Small Talk Series every Thursday this semester from 3-4 pm in the Graduate Student Life Lounge, 0121 Stamp.  Coffee is available at no charge. No pre-registration is required. 

Contact Information

The Graduate School
University of Maryland

2123 Lee Building
7809 Regents Drive
College Park, MD 20742