SMALL TALK (light or casual conversation)

It is useful to know how to make small talk in English. You will probably be considered rude and unfriendly if you don't take the time to make small talk. So how do you start a conversation?

Remember to relax, smile and make eye contact when you use the phrases and you should be fine. The tricky part is learning how to turn this greeting into a conversation. What do you say next? In America, after the greeting or opening, people usually start to ask questions to find something to talk about. For the conversation to keep going both have to participate. One person should not dominate, nor should the entire conversation center around one of the speakers. Once you have found a common interest of some sort, the conversation can develop from there.
 
A helpful trick for finding an area of common interest is to use open-ended questions. These are questions which cannot be answered by just yes or no. They often use question words such as what, when, why, where and how. An example: "Do you play sports?" is not open-ended, but "What kind of sports are you interested in?" is. When you give short answers to a question or answer only yes or no, the conversation will probably end soon. The person who gives such answers also gives the other person the impression that he or she is unfriendly, not interested, or simply does not want to talk.
 
But what do you talk about? You can't discuss the weather forever! Nobody discusses just the weather, but it is a common, safe topic which you can start with. Some other common topics are: work, school, weekend or vacation activities, family, finances (investments, stocks, etc.), possessions, sports, hobbies, yourself, and current affairs. These topics may seem unimportant or uninteresting to some people, but small talk is very important for getting to know people and making them feel comfortable. We like to use such introductory or safe conversations to help us decide if we want to get to know the other person better. Small talk can of course lead to conversations about more interesting, serious and important topics.
 
Sometimes finding a topic isn't easy when you have not grown up in the same culture. The more things you are interested in or know a little bit about, the easier it will be for you. If you are meeting people from a specific place, try to find out what's going on in their area of the world.
 
Some things may be considered rather personal or private, and should be avoided in conversations with Americans you don't know well. Such topics are: money, age (except when asking about children), religion (usually discussed after you've gotten to know each other better), physical appearance (compliments are OK, but be careful with other comment, such as "Have you gained weight lately?"), certain questions about marriage or family planning (such as "Why aren't you married yet?), and sometimes politics.

Usually there will be times in a conversation when one topic comes to an end and you can either continue with a related idea or stop talking. What are some phrases for ending the conversation?

Do not be fooled by quasi-invitation endings. Americans may say something at the end of a conversation that sounds like an invitation. Do not assume that this will result in your getting together. Phrases like "Let's get together sometime." or "I hope to see you soon." are ways we use to tell the other person that the conversation was enjoyable - they are not always real invitations.

 

Practice Small Talk

1. You are standing in a long line at Walmart waiting to check out. You are really bored and think it would help pass time by making small talk with others in the line.

 

2. You are in a doctor's waiting room. How would you start a conversation to help make the time go by faster?

 

3. You go to a restaurant to have lunch. It turns out that the restaurant is very crowded and you must share a table with strangers. How do you use small talk to help make the situation more comfortable?