By Olena Goncharova   Olena

What always surprises me when I come back home to Ukraine from my travels is the gloomy faces. It starts with border guards at the passport check in the airport. In the shuttle bus and in the subway, people rarely smile when they catch your glimpse.

Ukrainians are not used to expressing their feelings and emotions in public (Not counting protests, of course).

We rarely greet bus drivers and we’re not used to having small talk with people waiting for the same bus, or with vendors and waiters. Many Ukrainians believe complimenting strangers is done only if we want to flirt with them. For some, it’s uncomfortable to share any thoughts with people they don’t know. Often we just don’t want to intrude on other people’s business.

In America, small talk plays a huge role. You make small talk if you want to build a relationship with your colleagues, gain people’s trust or just bond with someone who might become your friend.

In the newsroom of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where I’m working during the fellowship, small talk is also an important skill to have. Since you’re meeting lots of new people daily, it could be hard to remember all them if you have nothing to associate them with. That is where small talk comes in handy.

During a morning meeting when the staff gathers to discuss the newspaper’s story budget for the day, I found out that an outdoor writer had just filed a story about women’s self-defense classes where women are taught how to use firearms. The conversation caught my attention because I’ve always wanted to learn how to shoot a gun.

So the next time he greeted me in the office, asking how I’m doing, I decided that a short reply like “I’m fine” wouldn’t work. A few minutes into our small talk about hunting and rifles, he said he’d happily teach me how to shoot. Thanks to this I learned not only his name, but some of his hobbies and his professional background. That weekend, he took me and another colleague into a wooded area where I shot Coke cans with a shotgun.

I thought to give a small talk another try. We all know that awkward silence in an elevator when you have to spend some minutes with the people you don’t know. Should you talk to them or just say “hello” and smile? Usually I just pray to not get stuck inside, since I’ve had some unpleasant experiences in elevators.

This time in the elevator, there was just me and one of my colleagues whose name at that time I still had not memorized. I knew he was a sports writer, so I just asked what his favorite sport is. “Actually, I love football,” he said. ”But I often cover hockey instead.”

Bingo! I’m terribly bad at American football, but I know a bit about hockey, so here I go.

I asked him about new CONSOL Energy Center, home to the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League. He told me that the arena can fit up to 18,000 people and that maybe we could go there together since  the NHL playoff games had just started. And so I ended up at one of the Penguins-New York Rangers games, where we experienced what claims to be the most comfortable seating arrangement in the NHL (It really is!), worked in the media box and checked out the Rangers’ locker room. Unfortunately for the Penguins, they lost. But it was a great fun to watch, and I got to see how sportswriters cover the games.

If you think that small talk is something idle or pointless, think twice. You can’t get to the point of a deeper conversation with someone right away. Maybe the next person you talk to at a conference or in a coffee shop will drastically change your life direction.

Here are some of my tips for visiting fellows, learned the hard way.

Observe and do your homework. Read about the city where are living. What’s interesting about it? Try to remember some key dates and people who played important roles in the city. Get in the habit of talking to at least three new people daily.

Initiate the conversation just with one simple question. “What do you think about this play?” “Can you suggest some place to find a good cup of coffee? I’ve been struggling to find any…” Even if you think you’re asking something people have talked about thousands of times, just try. The questioning pays off because people are eager to explain.

Ask open-ended questions. Be curious. Try to find out more about people’s hobbies, what they do to pass the time. “What was the last book you read?” “Are there any places in town to play squash?” People like to talk about themselves. Keep the conversation going by asking follow-up questions. It’s not as difficult as it seems.

I’ve already decided to practice small talk when I return to Ukraine. So once I land in Kyiv in September, I will be happy to engage security guards in conversations at border control. Eventually, they will be among the first countrymen I will see after my six-month leave. I hope for a warm welcome!