Brené Brown hosted (December 7, 2020) President Barack Obama, in her Dare to Lead podcast, to talk about his book, A Promised Land. In their conversation, Obama spoke about his life, his work, his family, and leadership in uncertain times. As the podcast aired during the holiday season, it promoted Obama’s book to the audience. Yet, the conversation about the book was not the only meaningful part of the conversation.
Obama and Brown shared noticeable small talk at the beginning of the interview. Their short exchange of pleasantries is a perfect example of how to conduct polite, friendly, and gracious small talk.
Obama and Brown talk about their shared experiences as parents during the pandemic, about Thanksgiving, and strive to find mutually friendly ground between one another in the active parts of their conversation and between themselves and the listeners. They acknowledge one another’s private lives gracefully while also creating a safe space for a personal conversation.
Below is an account of their 1 minute and 48-second conversation. In it, I analyze their words and cultural gestures and draw attention to key examples with tips on how to engage in friendly but formal small talk.
President Obama and Brené Brown’s small talk (Dec. 7, 2020):
Brown: Mister President, hello!
Obama: Are you in Houston?
Brown: I’m in Houston.
First, it is lovely to ask something general about the other speaker. Typically, it would be a question that wouldn’t feel too inquisitive: where are you talking from? How is the weather over there? What’s [city/industry/profession etc.] like right now?
Obama: How was your Thanksgiving?
Again, President Obama asks an amiable open-ended question grounded in the holiday season's context yet can be answered in a general way and is not too intrusive.
Brown: It was small and weird, but great. How was your Thanksgiving?
Obama: Same. My daughters have been with us for months now, and I’m fine with it. I don’t know how they feel, but like I’m just move in, there is no reason for you ever to leave. It’s fine.
Brown: Oh, man, me too.
Both Brown and Obama share a small, personal-yet-not-too-personal story about their familial experience during Thanksgiving. Their stories share a universal anchor that both they and their listeners can identify with.
Their stories encompass a perfect combination of personal anecdotes, humor, and formality. Obama refers to the universal experience of parenting high-schoolers and college students and the change in relationships during the pandemic. He tells a short story that can be regarded as personal and universal simultaneously. His answer interlaces a veil of humor that unites the audience, who can relate to the notion of parents missing their children and wanting them to come home and stay with them a little longer.
Both their answers accommodate a level of ceremonial discourse. Their stories are grounded in their personal narrative yet are general enough not to impose a level of unwanted intimacy on the listener.
Obama: How many kids do you have?
Brown often speaks about her family and children, so asking a general question about her family is a friendly way to keep the conversation going. If you don’t want to make assumptions about children and family members, you could ask, “who is with you at home?”
Brown: I have a 21-year-old senior, and I’ve got a 15-year-old freshman in school here in Houston. So, the 21-year-old tested, quarantined, and came home for a week, and it was amazing.
Obama: That’s great. How is the 15-year-old holding up?
President Obama is demonstrating a perfect way to ask a specific personal question that acknowledges the difficulty, in this case, teenagers, and creates empathy. The question is open enough to allow Brown to answer as she wishes and allows the conversation to be relatable for the listeners.
Obama: Yeah, if you are 15 to 19, where so much of your life is getting away from your parents, spending time with your friends, figuring out your own path, they feel it more acutely, I noticed Sasha it’s more frustrating for her than it’s been for Malia. It’s just because she is nineteen; it’s a little bit different.
Obama is demonstrating a perfect example of empathy, in the form of a general saying that acknowledges the hardships of teenagers and the linkage to their personal world and narrative. Notably, he does not talk about this situation in a way that is too personal or too revealing for his daughters and does not leave an uncomfortable feeling in the conversation.
Brown: It’s interesting. He is an athlete, so that’s helpful, but when there was no pool and first year in high school, he was just like, this is not what I had pictured. And really trying to honor their disappointment because this is their world, you know, I have to be careful not saying like you think you got this tough. This is their world, you know.
Brown’s reply uses the same structure: a personal example that does not reveal too many personal details about her son and connects their exchange to parents' general reflections to teenagers.
Obama: That’s exactly right. It sounds like he is going to be doing OK. But you’re right; you can’t remind them that, actually, high school is not that important.
Obama: That’s not well received.
Brown: No, because everything is so big that it is important, you know.
Obama and Brown have completed the cycle of empathy for parents of teenagers, struggling to hold everything together during the pandemic. They established common ground by acknowledging hardships and humorously shared the inside jokes of parenting, all while being respectful to their children, the listeners, and themselves.
Obama: Well, thank you for having me.
This is an essential and important sentence that the interview cannot start without. This sentence is crucial because it acknowledges the host’s time and attention. With this statement, Obama, the guest, shows appreciation for being welcomed.
Brown: Should we just jump in; I’ve got eighteen hours’ worth of questions.
Obama: Let’s just dive in. We got one hour exactly.
Obama: So, I think let’s just do this thing.
What have we seen here?
Obama and Brown establish friendly ground between themselves and with the audience. They are asking questions that are personal yet are not intrusive — questions that are designed to reach out and allow bonding on personal grounds.
Obama and Brown’s short exchange of pleasantries is a choreographed, timed, and calculated conversation. Similar to the way a bow or a handshake are expressions of formal introduction in meetings, mixers, and even in martial arts, small talk is an important part of conversations and media interviews. It is the part that signals and acknowledges the importance of the process, formal and informal alike, and the value of friendly and respectful human interaction.