Speaking can be the most stressful part of your English learning experience. Still, it can also become an excellent tool for finding new friends, career opportunities, and expanding your comfort zone.
One of the biggest advantages of small talk is that it allows you to communicate your feelings, give your best wishes, or establish social connections using the most basic English sentences. However, not everyone is a master of running daily conversations with new people or even strangers.
In this post, you will find information about what small talk is, along with the secrets of effective communication. In addition, we will share the best topics for conversation in English. Let's talk!
What Is Small Talk and When Do You Need It?
Small talk is a friendly conversation of a non-serious nature that usually takes place between people that don't know each other well or have just met for the first time. For example, you can have such a conversation with English-speaking colleagues, people you meet at the party, conference participants, fellow travelers on a train, neighbors, etc.
Usually, the need for a casual conversation arises when you find yourself alone with a new person and want to avoid awkward silence. Also, small talk will help you make new acquaintances and is a very handy skill for business networking.
All in all, small talk is an excellent opportunity to communicate with English speakers to practice your English speaking skills.
And just like during any conversation, it is necessary to follow certain rules when making small talk. Below, you will find the do's and don'ts lists to help you have a basic English conversation, as well as some helpful tips and conversation starters.
If you are going to a conference or another place where the small talk will be unavoidable, you should think of several conversation topics that suit the occasion best. For example, if you're visiting a business event or meeting, you may want to learn common phrases for introducing yourself and choose some industry-related topics to discuss.
- Hi, I'm Sue. I work as a PR specialist for That Big Company. What's your name?
- Do you know who will be speaking after the opening session?
On the other hand, if you're going to a party or meeting your foreign friends, watching some English videos with real-life examples of starting small talk would be helpful. Here are some suggestions:
- When was the last time you saw Molly? She introduced us at the party last month.
Consider Cultural Differences
In some countries, it is normal to freely discuss salaries even with new people, while such topics are avoided in others. A colleague from one country might be pleased if you praise her dress, while a colleague from another may think that you are crossing social boundaries.
To avoid getting into an uncomfortable situation, you should always be mindful of the cultural differences between you and new people you're going to meet and try to stick to generally accepted topics - you will find some suggestions below.
People are pleased to listen to something good about themselves, so starting the small talk with a sincere compliment is a win-win option:
- I love your hat. Can I ask where you got it?
- I've just heard about your presentation. Great job! How long did it take for you to prepare it?
Repeating someone's name in conversation is a very powerful move that helps you make the person you're talking to listen to you more carefully and be more engaged in the conversation. You can use this to make a good impression on the person - they will be pleased that you have remembered their name.
However, don't overdo it: it's not necessary to mention the name in every sentence, as it can sound confusing or even irritating. In addition, don't forget to maintain eye contact - it will increase the chances that people will remember your face and what you've said. Besides, it's a good way to express your confidence using body language.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Sometimes small talk doesn't stick because you ask closed questions - those that can be answered with a single "yes" or "no." In this case, even if they want to continue the conversation, the person simply cannot do it.
The key to avoiding awkward silence is not to limit yourself to a formal greeting but ensure it is followed by an open-ended question next, like these:
- How has your day been so far?
- Morning! I went camping on Saturday. Was your weekend any better?
- I've received your message about the meeting on Monday. What's the agenda?
On the other hand, when you are asked questions, try to respond to them in detail - this way, there is a higher chance for small talk to grow into a meaningful conversation.
Find a Universal Conversation Topic
A conversation on a topic interesting to both you and your companion has higher chances to go as smoothly as possible and help you find common ground. To do this, try to start with a universal subject for discussion and observe the person's reaction - if they answer with a cold yes or no, it might be a sign they're not interested.
Here is a list of safe conversation starters you can use, regardless of the occasion:
- Vacations and rest. It is one of the easiest topics for a first encounter - you can ask the person how they spent their vacation or are going to spend the weekend, and then share your plans for the Christmas holidays or summer vacation.
- Workplace. It is a great topic if you communicate with a foreign colleague, a participant in a business conference, etc. The only rule here is you must speak positively about the company.
- Hobby. Shared interests bring people together, so talking about hobbies can help you not just make small talk, but perhaps also to find a real friend.
- Sports. It is a popular topic, so you have a chance to find like-minded people if you're a fan yourself. If you've noticed a person has a sports club logo on their clothes or accessories, it's your main clue to start a conversation about sports.
- Weather. Even if it sounds boring, it is an absolutely safe topic. You can start the small talk by expressing some observations, and then, when you talk a little, move on to something more original.
- Food. You can start a conversation with a stranger by asking them what food they like or about their favorite restaurant. You can ask if your colleague likes the new coffee beans or what they're ordering for lunch if you're at the office.
- Good news. You can mention some exciting news (Have you heard that Blinding Lights by The Weeknd has become an all-time No 1 Billboard single?) and ask what the person thinks about it (Do you like that kind of music?). It may turn out to be an interesting conversation.
Discussing Boring Stuff
It may already be challenging to speak English in real life, but it may turn into a real struggle when you have to discuss a topic that you don’t know much about. Try to find something familiar and fun for you two.
Otherwise, the person you’re speaking to will feel that you are not listening or too bored to pay attention which may also seem rude.
Not Letting a Person Speak
If you have been looking forward to speaking with a foreigner, it is easy to start trying to say as much as possible, completely forgetting that small talk is a dialogue between two people. Be sure to let the other person speak and avoid interrupting them; otherwise, they will learn to avoid speaking to you in the future.
Everyone is uncomfortable with awkward silence, but do not be afraid. Besides, who said pauses - if they don’t take forever - are necessarily a bad thing? It's better to be silent for a few seconds and think about an interesting response than to chat intensively about what first came to mind.
Besides, having a quick break in conversation gives you an opportunity to collect your thoughts, think about what has been spoken, and come up with a meaningful question. See, nothing to fear!
Being Afraid of Mistakes
Small talk gives you an opportunity to overcome the language barrier and practice your speaking skills even if you are using basic English sentences, so don't miss it.
Your companion can be as confused as you are, but they definitely understand that you speak a non-native language, so you don't have to be afraid of making mistakes or feeling nervous about it.
Moreover, if you're talking to native English speakers, they may be able to help you in the conversation, and you can learn English phrases from their vocabulary - this way, you can consider each small talk an improvised lesson.
Talking About Inappropriate Topics
When making small talk, it is important to remain polite at all times. Sometimes, it means avoiding topics that aren't suitable for discussing with people you don't have a close relationship with.
Here is a list of topics that it is better to avoid in conversation with a person you don’t know very well:
- Complaints. You should refrain from sharing your personal complaints or negative opinions with a stranger.
- Personal life. This topic can be uncomfortable for a person who has problems in this area. It is better not to ask questions about partners, children, health issues unless the other person brings it up.
- Age and appearance. Such a topic can be appropriate in a conversation with a friend, but it is untactful and might even be offensive to voice your remarks to a new acquaintance, even if they seem innocent.
- Gossip. Discussing other people behind their backs can ruin your reputation and hurt your relationships with other people.
- Religion and politics can be very sensitive topics and often can be a source of heated arguments, so it would be better to choose something more neutral to talk about.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, running casual conversations in English comes with a set of additional benefits - from allowing you to start speaking English on a regular basis to expanding your vocabulary and maintaining friendly relationships with people around you.
We hope that our brief guide will help you embrace the art of English small talk. In addition to the information above, you may want to download our Langster app. Our bite-sized stories will replace boring English lessons, allowing you to learn English in an enjoyable way.