How good are you at small talk?

Level B1 to C1 (Social English with exercises)

Written and compiled by Benedicte Gravrand, English trainer at The Language House

 

Small talk, also known as light conversation or social English, is the ground on which great relationships are built.

Small talk might seem trivial or banal, yet it plays a vital role in social and professional interactions. It often revolves around the weather, sport, the weekend, the news, family and friends, past and future social or corporate events.

It’s almost an art form, difficult for non-English native speakers and challenging for many native speakers. We have all experienced long uncomfortable silences and admired skillful communicators who move effortlessly from small talk to ‘big’ talk.

These interactions are at times almost formulaic and often do not result in a real conversation. But they serve to create a positive atmosphere, a common ground and comfort zone between people who might be total strangers.

Think of small talk as a bonding ritual (the process of developing a special close relationship between people).

Small talk in the time of the pandemic

It is interesting to note that in the time of the pandemic and the resulting isolation periods, there might actually be less small talk in the world than last year. This may mean less new friendships, less new business partnerships, less networking… in short, less connections.

Many of us are coming back to work and will have to make small talk again, even if we feel rusty due to a lack of practice. Because of this, it may be a good idea to review your social English

Here are some phrases and ideas to get a conversation going beyond the run of the mill (ordinary) hello-nice-to-meet-you-my-name-is and the how-are-you themes. You’ll also find two small talk exercises.

 

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Small talk. Tips and tricks.

 

 

 

Small talk and active listening go hand in hand

Small talk can be a very active process where you try to learn about each other in the hope of finding common ground (something you agree about) or something in common (the same interests or experiences), and make a connection. It’s a not just about speaking, it’s about listening.

Small talk is done with strangers (people you don’t know yet) or acquaintances (people you know a little), and is also used as a conversation lubricant among people who know each other well, just to get the conversation started:

Hello mum, how are you? What’s the weather like at the moment? Did you go to your book club on Tuesday?

 

Small talk with strangers and acquaintances

This is a type of conversation where you have to be at your most sociable. Deborah Capras author of “Small Talk” (Collins), recommends the following:

  • Open body language – in person or on video calls (more below)
  • Make positive comments
  • Really? That’s interesting.
  • Show genuine (honest) interest
  • How was your trip?
  • What brings you to this conference?
  • Ask follow-up questions (a question that you ask immediately after another question, in order to get more information)
  • So you do business in Brussels! I know Brussels very well. Do you go there often?
  • Provide extra information when answering closed (yes-no) questions
  • Yes, I do tend to go to Brussels a lot. In fact, I may spend more time there in the future… I miss the moules and frites. Yum!
  • Compliment when appropriate (proper)
  • I couldn’t help noticing your pen. It’s really nice.
  • Be more polite than you would be with people you know very well and don’t hesitate to use modal verbs
  • May I sit at this table?
  • Could I ask you how you know the host?

 

Body language

This is extremely important. Deborah Capras advises the following:

 

  • smile (even if you’re wearing a mask, as it shows in your eyes
  • regular eye contact (but no staring)
  • nod your head to show that you are listening
  • don’t fold your arms in front of your chest
  • try not to infringe on (invade) other people’s space either with your legs or by standing too close to people (especially with that virus running around)
  • And of course, I would add, shaking hands and hugging are a no-no nowadays

 

Personal life

Small talk can include talk about personal life if you use follow-up questions:

  • Oh, you have a son! How old is he?
  • So you speak Russian too?

It is good to:

  • remember details about other person
  • How did the move go?
  • show appreciation
  • Very well, thank you for asking.
  • give appropriate responses
  • That’s wonderful news, congratulations!
  • How awful, I’m so sorry to hear that.

 

Sensitive topics

“Sensitive”, in this context, means “needing to be dealt with carefully”. During small talk, keep the conversation light and:

 

  • As a rule, do not talk about religion, politics, money, sex, death, appearances, tell offensive jokes…
  • Avoid (try to prevent something from happening) asking direct personal questions – such as: are you married?
  • If you accidentally touch on a topic sensitive to the other person, do apologise
  • Oh I’m sorry, I completely forgot, you must think I am terribly rude
  • Sorry, I had no idea.
  • Show understanding
  • Don’t worry about it.
  • If you want to avoid talking about something
  • you know, I really couldn’t say.
  • to be honest, I’d prefer not to talk about it.
  • If you want to terminate a conversation
  • would you excuse me? I have to take care of something.

 

Good byes

You can:

  • Close the conversation politely
  • Anyway, I’d better be going
  • Is that the time? I really must run…
  • Show appreciation
  • It was a pleasure to meet you
  • Thank you for everything
  • And if applicable, look to the future
  • I look forward to seeing you again
  • Keep in touch

 

Related blogs from The Language House:

Giving your opinion

Thank God for masks. No-one can see how I really feel.

Gossip: Nobody claims to like it, but everybody enjoys it

Say and tell: What did she say? What did she tell you?

 

 

Katy Perry: Small Talk

 

 

 

Practice small talk: two conversations

 

  1. Bob and Michael

 

Bob and Michael don’t know each other. They’ve just met by the coffee machine in a company.

Fill in the gaps with the words and phrases below. The first one has been done for you.

 

(a) It was nice to meet you

(b) Thank you 

(c) So do I       

(d) she is your new boss         

(e) I didn’t catch your name   

(f) So you normally have Christmas parties here?

(g) where do you work?

(h) Now if you would excuse me

(i) I would love that

(j) Hello, my name is Bob       

(k) Nice to meet you

 

Bob: 1. (j) Hello my name is Bob this is my first day here. Could you tell me if the coffee is good here?

Michael: Hello, 2.    . Sorry, 3. … .

B: Bob.

M: Bob, yes. I’m Michael. Well, the coffee is rather good here in my opinion. Give it a go!

B: 4. … , I will.

M: Where will you be working?

B: I’m the new deputy head accountant, so I’ll be on the first floor.

M: I know Debbie, 5. …, right?

B: That’s right. What about you, 6. … ?

M: I’m on this floor, marketing. I’ve been working here for five years.

B: So you must know the company inside out. Have you met the founder?

M: As a matter of fact, I have. I met him a couple of years ago at a Christmas party. He is actually a very friendly guy.

B: 7. … ?

M: Yes, every year. Although not sure if we’ll have one this year. It might be hard to drink eggnog with the masks on. But I don’t always attend as I usually go to Scotland for Christmas. I have family there.

B: 8. … , my wife is from Glasgow. But we tend to go there during the Easter season.

M: Ah, the rainy season then.

B: Yes, we usually stay indoors and drink whiskey. My father-in-law runs a distillery…

M: I love whiskey too. We should have a tasting one of these days.

B: 9. … .

M: 10. … , I have to get back to my office, I have an important conference call.

B: Absolutely. Me too. 11. … , Michael.

 

Answer key:

1:j – 2:k – 3:e – 4:b – 5:d – 6:g – 7:f – 8:c – 9:I – 10:h – 11:a.

 

Bob: Hello, my name is Bob, this is my first day here. Could you tell me if the coffee is good here?

Michael: Hello, Nice to meet you. Sorry, I didn’t catch your name.

B: Bob.

M: Bob, yes. I’m Michael. Well, the coffee is rather good here in my opinion. Give it a go!

B: Thank you, I will.

M: Where will you be working?

B: I’m the new deputy head accountant, so I’ll be on the first floor.

M: I know Debbie, she is your new boss, right?

B: That’s right. What about you, where do you work?

M: I’m on this floor, marketing. I’ve been working here for five years.

B: So you must know the company inside out. Have you met the founder?

M: As a matter of fact, I have. I met him a couple of years ago at a Christmas party. Great party! He is actually a very friendly guy.

B: So you normally have Christmas parties here?

M: Yes, every year. Although not sure if we’ll have one this year. It might be hard to drink eggnog with the masks on. But I don’t always attend as I usually go to Scotland for Christmas. I have family there.

B: So do I, my wife is from Glasgow. But we tend to go there during the Easter season.

M: Ah, the rainy season then.

B: Yes, we usually stay indoors and drink whiskey. My father-in-law runs a distillery…

M: I love whiskey too. We should have a tasting one of these days.

B: I would love that.

M: Now if you would excuse me, I have to get back to my office, I have an important conference call.

B: Absolutely. Me too. It was nice to meet you, Michael.

 

 

  1. Claire and Sarah

 

Claire and Sarah are acquaintances who have just met after a fitness class.

Fill in the gaps with the words and phrases below. The first one has been done for you.

 

(a) Long time no see

(b) No need to apologise

(c) And you must be Sarah

(d) I really didn’t mean to criticize

(e) You have an excellent memory.

(f) Really?

(g) How interesting to hear that

(h) Bye for now

(i) I know what you mean

(j) I’m really sorry, but what was your name again?

(k) I’d better be going…

(l) Umm… have we met before?

(m) Oh lovely, you must be very proud!

(n) See you soon

 

Claire: Hello there. 1. (a) Long time no see. What did you think of the class?

Sarah: Hello. 2. ….

C: We did last year’s class together.

S: Ah, yes, indeed. 3. …

C: It’s Claire. 4. … , if memory serves me well.

S: Yes. 5. … .

C: Thank you.  What did you think of the class? It was hard, wasn’t it?

S: 6. … . I found it hard too, but challenging.

C: I remember your daughter was in the class too. Is she not coming anymore?

S: Oh, no, she’s gone to university, she’s studying pre-med.

C: 7. … Is she thinking of becoming a doctor?

S: That’s the plan, yes.

C: My son did pre-med, but he decided to study languages in the end. He is in Finland now.

S: 8. … That must have been a big change for him. Is he enjoying life in Finland?

C: Very much so. He told me a funny thing the other day: apparently there are some lessons in small talk in Finland. This is because the Finns are very reserved and don’t know how to make small talk. They really don’t like talking to strangers. But the global economy is forcing them to get out of their shell.

S: 9. … . I am from Finland.

C: I’m so sorry. 10. … .

S: 11. … . I know the Finns are a reserved lot. Anyway, 12. …  I don’t want to miss my next appointment.

C: 13. … , Sarah.

S: 14. … , Claire.

 

Answer key:

1:a – 2:l – 3:j – 4:c – 5:e – 6:i – 7:m – 8:f – 9:g – 10:d – 11:b – 12:k – 13:h – 14:n

 

Claire: Hello there. Long time no see. What did you think of the class?

Sarah: Hello. Umm… have we met before?

C: We did last year’s class together.

S: Ah, yes, indeed. I’m really sorry, but what was your name again?

C: It’s Claire. And you must be Sarah, if memory serves me well.

S: Yes. You have an excellent memory.

C: Thank you.  What did you think of the class? It was hard, wasn’t it?

S: I know what you mean. I found it quite challenging.

C: I remember your daughter was in the class too. Isn’t she coming anymore?

S: Oh, no, she’s gone to university, she’s studying medicine.

C: Oh lovely, you must be very proud! Is she thinking of becoming a doctor?

S: That’s the plan, yes.

C: My son did medicine, but he decided to study languages in the end. He is in Finland now.

S: Really? That must have been a big change for him. Is he enjoying life in Finland?

C: Very much so. He told me a funny thing the other day: apparently there are some lessons in small talk in Finland. This is because the Finns are very reserved and don’t know how to make small talk. They really don’t like talking to strangers. But the global economy is forcing them to get out of their shell.

S: How interesting to hear that. I am from Finland.

C: I’m so sorry. I really didn’t mean to criticize.

S: No need to apologise. I know we Finns are a reserved lot. Anyway, I’d better be going…

I don’t want to miss my next appointment.

C: Bye for now, Sarah.

S: See you soon, Claire.

 

10 ways to have a better conversation

 

 

 

More reading

 

48 Questions That’ll Make Awkward Small Talk So Much Easier (with acquaintances)

Be Social: 7 English Small Talk Topics for Starting Friendly Conversations

Preparing for Small Talk: A List of the Best and Worst Topics

The Ultimate Guide to Small Talk: Conversation Starters, Powerful Questions, & More

Garry Littman

Garry Littman

Garry Littman est le fondateur de The Language House à Genève. The Language House propose des coachings d'anglais à Genève pour les particuliers et les entreprises, ainsi que des cours intensifs d'anglais dans les pays anglophones. Garry a été journaliste en Australie et en Asie, il a travaillé pour World Radio Switzerland.

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