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Eavesdropping On Elevator Chitchat Taught Me The Secret To Small Talk

After three hours as an amateur anthropologist in her own office building, one writer realizes the elevator pitch isn’t the only way to fill awkward airtime.

Eavesdropping On Elevator Chitchat Taught Me The Secret To Small Talk
[Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, [LC-DIG-hec-40753]

As a communications coach I’m always I telling people to keep their elevator pitches handy, this way if someone important comes along they’ll always have something meaningful to say.

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So I recently conducted a little experiment to see how often that happened–and how successfully: I decided to stand in the elevator, push any old button, and just listen. I chose the elevator in my company’s office building, a 34-story tower in Toronto that houses a range of companies–communications firms, advertising agencies, government offices, publishers, and others.

But I didn’t hear the well-chiseled scripts I’d expected to. In fact, I didn’t hear a single elevator pitch at all. What I heard instead was (mostly) very effective small talk–and I noticed why it can be so powerful: Over my three hours of listening in, all but one person offered something to their elevator companions.

Those small, verbal acts of generosity, I realized, are fundamental to building the relationships our careers depend upon–arguably even more so than any elevator pitch. Here are five of the most effective ones I overheard.


Related: What Happened When I Replied “Call Me” To Every Email I Got For A Week


Warm Greetings Are Contagious

Many people who got into the elevator smiled warmly or asked me how my day was going. I found myself beginning to do the same–it was contagious. One young man responded to my question even though he had earbuds on. I said, “How are you?” and he said, “Great” and gave me a big smile.

It was simple and fleeting, but even an exchange like that can help shake up an otherwise task-ridden day. In fact, I believe reaching out just to greet somebody sincerely is an act of leadership. Leaders take the time and initiative to make others feel acknowledged and understood. It’s more than just good manners–and sometimes all it takes is a quick hello and a smile.

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Showing Concern Spreads Empathy

I also noticed a lot of helpfulness in my elevator interactions. A team of three young people in business attire stepped in and noticed I hadn’t pushed a button to a specific floor. Of course, they didn’t know I wasn’t going anywhere in particular, but they quickly expressed concern that I wasn’t going to get where I needed to.

“What floor would you like?” one of them asked me. Making up a number, I replied, “23 please.”

“Oh,” the young woman replied, “you’ll need to go to a different elevator to get to an odd floor. You’ll need to get an elevator on the concourse floor.”

She didn’t have to help me. She didn’t even have to notice me. But I was touched that she did. Casual small talk with strangers and acquaintances tends to focus on innocuous things like the weather. Better to use these interactions to take note of anyone who might need your assistance–and offer it unasked-for. They’ll appreciate it, and value you all the more.


Related: What To Say When You’re Stuck In The Elevator With Your Boss’s Boss


A Compliment Can Create Rapport

Another act of generosity I noticed was how people paid each other compliments while sharing updates on their workdays. Two women stepped into the elevator on a floor marked, “Family and Child Services.” One confided to the other, “I wish you had been moderating the session yesterday. You’re so good at that. Unfortunately, because you weren’t there, there was a heated exchange between two participants. If you’d been there facilitating the meeting that never would’ve happened.”

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As you encounter people throughout your day, chances are you’ll share a scrap of recent news around the office or let somebody know about a recent experience. As you do, take a moment to find a relevant compliment, or just tell them they’re good at what they do. That graciousness that can make someone’s day.

Humor Builds Bonds

At another point two colleagues entered the elevator and one proceeded to regale the other with a personal story. “My brother has both a cat and a dog,” the raconteur said, “It’s crazy–I went to sit down in his living room and all this hair was all over my pants. I said, ‘What the hell happened?’ And my brother said, ‘That’s the cat’s chair.'”

They stepped out still laughing, and I was chuckling inside, too. The short exchange said a lot about the storyteller, who was able to laugh at himself–and reflect on something that had nothing to do with work. We all know that funny anecdotes like these bring people closer, but it’s not always easy to find time to share them. But if you take a moment to just tell someone a story to make them laugh–whether it’s your boss, a coworker, or even a client–you may well earn their trust and create a stronger bond.

We All Need To Share What’s Distinct About Our Jobs

In one of my final encounters, I rode the elevator with a cleaning woman who came in pushing an enormous supply cart. I asked her if she cleaned all the offices in the building and she replied, “Only the ladies’ rooms.”

“Ah,” I said–and she added, “not the men’s rooms or the offices.”

I suspect she wanted me to know that she is a specialist. She didn’t have to clarify which areas of the building she’s responsible for–a simple “no” would’ve cut it. But she generously offered me a little more insight into her job. When small talk extends the opportunity, most of us naturally jump at the chance to share and take ownership of our roles, no matter what they entail. Everyone deserves to be noticed for the work they do.

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These small acts of generosity occur in spaces like elevators, where we don’t have desks, work, screens, or meeting agendas to distract us–and that’s no surprise. But rather than use these brief moments to try pitching or selling someone on something (or just filling the airtime with empty talk about the weather), take a moment to engage and connect. These five types of interaction, modest as they may seem, will leave powerful impressions long after the doors sweep open and you go your separate ways.

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About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She is a communications expert whose business teaches global clients how to communicate as confident, compelling leaders

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