Podcasts and Small Talk

A couple of days ago, I ran into a coworker in the office break room and we were discussing what we were up to.

“I picked up Chinese recently!”

“Wanna learn my secret of mastering English? It might give you an idea on learning Chinese.”


My question clearly got him interested. I pulled him aside and lowered my voice, “I don’t share this with others – what worked really well for me is to listen to lots of podcast.”

Of course, calling it a secret is exaggerating and podcast is not the only source of material you can listen to. It could expand to radio, audiobooks, and even TVs and movies. However, I am dead serious that listening is a great way to pick up a new language, because it allows you to be immersed in that language environment. In my case, it is English. In this post, I will highlight the two benefits of listening, with news radio and podcasts being the medium. Then I will share my favorite podcasts.

I am a big proponent for two reasons. First, it facilitates the speaking environment while enabling you to multitask. As children, we acquired our mother tongues through interaction – not only with our parents and other adults, but also with other children. We were constantly surrounded by conversation in that language. Thus, lots of listening to podcasts is to provide us the same language immersion. Besides, listening is so easy, because it frees up your eyes, hands, and feet. My podcast listening philosophy is that it’s OK to space out once in a while and miss some sentences, since environment matters more.

  • Get ready in the morning? It does not hurt to turn on NPR (National Public Radio) while you are getting dressed and eating breakfast.
  • Commute to work? Finish the list of headlines before you go into the office.
  • Time to clean the apartment? House chores will never be boring once you listen to a story from “This American Life”.
  • Going on a long run today? “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” is so fun that it is a perfect distraction from thinking about the rising heart rate.

The list goes on… For me, I try to tune in at any occasion that is routine and does not require my full attention.

Apart from the convenience that you can do it often, you could pick up knowledge of interested topics without too much time investments. Unlike reading that requires you to sit down and stayed focused on the book, you can be kept up to date via listening to podcasts.

  • No time to browse through the Wall Street Journal? Let NPR tell you all the breaking events.
  • Curious about psychology? Listen to “Arming the Donkeys” hosted by Dan Ariely, psychologist and best-selling author of “Predictably Irrational”.
  • Wanna stay current for trash talk for your fantasy football league? “ESPN Football Today” will inform you of the players and games updates.

Most importantly, you can accumulate knowledge of interested topics to prepare for small talk. Small talk could be a new concept to international students – it is “a friendly, lighthearted precursor to the main, “serious” portion of the discussion” as the HBR article “the Big Challenge with America” described. The conversation “creates a quick sense of rapport with potential employees”. Once you secure a job, it allows you to “bond with colleagues, boss, clients, etc”.


Have you noticed that at a networking event, some people invite themselves to a conversation smoothly by bringing up football, weather, weekend plans, etc before introducing themselves? When you meet a recruiter for interviews, isn’t it nice to have a conversation while he/she takes you to the end of the hallway to the interview room? Put yourself in the recruiter’s shoe – do you prefer to walk in silence or with someone that you could talk to? The goal is to quickly establish commonalities with the recruiter prior to the official interview. If small talk does not come naturally to you, use podcasts to do your homework. The more prepared you are with potential discussion topics, the more at ease you will be next time you see a senior executive in the elevator and would like to introduce yourself.

Small Talk

As an iPhone user, I use “Podcast” app to subscribe to my favorites:

  • NPR radio – It includes both global and local news. The local news will cover your residential state and city. Now that I am in Houston, I will not get insider scope on the new fried food at the MN State Fair, instead I hear about discussion on the livestock show at the Houston rodeo. By the way, NPR has its own standalone app and helps you find the local station.
  • Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me! – It is a weekly light-hearted news quiz with lots of wits!
  • This American Life – Before Serial becomes THE podcast that everyone talks about, its producer Chicago Public Media has “This American Life”, which is primarily a journalistic non-fiction program with a theme each week.
  • Pop Culture Happy Hour – Get the latest feed of popular books, TV shows and movies.
  • Stanford DFJ Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Series – Each week, usually a start-up founder or a VC investor will share his or her thoughts on running a company, career development, etc.
  • A Prairie Home Companion – my friend Emilie puts it best “This is where you get a taste of the quintessential Minnesotan life”.

That is plenty of listening time for you! One thing I struggle with is that I cannot keep up with my podcasts! Serial is still on my to-listen list… Having a habit of pushing the play button during my downtime is important, but I then recognize that my brain sometimes just needs quiet time without any input.

Share with me your favorite podcasts!

Next post spoil alert – recruiting season is coming up and this fall I am heading to University of Houston to recruit for Ecolab! I have prepared a checklist that covers all the critical points in recruiting, taken from the posts I have written in the past year. Think about it as a recruiting crash course! 😀  

2 thoughts on “Podcasts and Small Talk

  1. Pingback: From the Other Side of the Table – Recruiting Checklist | Sijie and 500 Words

  2. Pingback: 2017 Blogging Goals | Sijie and 500 Words

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