Making Small Talk
By Kenneth Beare
English as 2nd Language Expert
The ability to make ‘small talk’ is highly valued. In fact, many English students are more interested in making effective small talk than knowing correct grammar structures – and rightly so! Small talk gets friendships started and ‘breaks the ice’ before important business meetings and other events.
What is small talk?
Small talk is pleasant conversation about common interests.
Why is small talk difficult for some English learners?
First of all, making small talk is not difficult only for English learners, but also for many native speakers of English. However, small talk can be especially difficult for some learners because making small talk means talking about almost anything – and that means having a wide vocabulary that can cover most topics. Most English learners have excellent vocabulary in specific areas, but may have difficulties discussing topics they are unfamiliar with because of a lack of appropriate vocabulary.
This lack of vocabulary leads to some students ‘blocking’. They slow down or stop speaking completely because of a lack of self-confidence.
How to Improve Small Talk Skills
Now that we understand the problem, the next step is to improve the situation. Here are some tips to improve small talk skills. Of course, making effective small talk means lots of practice, but keeping these tips in mind should improve overall conversational skills.
Spend time on the Internet, reading magazines, or watching TV specials about the type of people you are going to meet. For example: If you are taking a class with students from other countries, take time after the first few days of class to do some research. They will appreciate your interest and your conversations will be much more interesting.
- Stay away from religion/strong political beliefs
While you may believe in something very strongly, beginning conversations and making small talk about your own personal convictions may abruptly end the conversation. Keep it light, don’t try to convince the other person that you have the ‘correct’ information about a higher being, political system or other belief system.
- Use the Internet to gain specific vocabulary
This is related to doing research about other people. If you have a business meeting, or are meeting people who share a common interest (a basketball team, a tour group interested in art, etc.), take advantage of the Internet to learn specific vocabulary. Almost all businesses and interest groups have glossaries on the Internet explaining the most important jargon related to their business or activity.
- Ask yourself about your culture
Take time to make a list of common interests that are discussed when making small talk in your own culture. You can do this in your own language, but check to make sure that you have the English vocabulary to make small talk about those subjects.
Once you have a subject that interests both of you, keep to it! You can do this in a number of ways: talking about travel, talking about the school or friend you have in common, talking about the differences between your culture and the new culture (just be careful to make comparisons and not judgments, i.e., The food in our country is better than the food here in England”).
This is very important. Don’t get so worried about being able to communicate that you don’t listen. Listening carefully will help you understand and encourage those speaking to you. You might be nervous, but letting others state their opinions will improve the quality of the discussion – and give you time to think of an answer!
Here is a list of common small talk subjects. If you have difficulties speaking about any of these topics, try to improve your vocabulary by using the resources available to you (Internet, magazines, teachers at school, etc.)
- Sports – current matches or games, favorite teams, etc.
- Weather – boring, but can get the ball rolling!
- Family – general questions, not questions about private matters
- Media – films, books, magazines, etc.
- Holidays – where, when, etc. but NOT how much!
- Home town – where do you come from, how is it different/similar to this town
- Job – once again, general questions not too specific
- Latest fashion and trends
- Celebrities – any gossip you may have!
Here is a list of topics that probably aren’t very good for small talk. Of course, if you are meeting a close friend these topics may be excellent. Just remember that ‘small talk’ is generally discussion with people you don’t know very well.
- Salary – how much do you make? – That’s none of your business!
- Politics – wait to you get to know the person better
- Intimate relationships – only for you and your partner – or maybe your best friend
- Religion – tolerance is the key!
- Death – we need to face it, but not the first time we meet someone new
- Financial – related to salary above, most people prefer to keep financial information to themselves
- Sales – Don’t try to sell something to someone you have just met.