You know that Americans make a lot of small talk. It helps build trust and rapport among strangers and it signals to others that you are friendly, perhaps someone to create a friendship or do business with.
A lot of English learners think that small talk is superficial, and boring. Sure, it can be, but it doesn’t have to be, if you make a bit of an effort, and practice small talk to feel confident.
Is small talk worth the effort? Yes!
Is it easy? It can be… with a few conversation starters up your sleeve.
There IS a reason why we say in American English “make small talk,” because small talk is an activity that takes effort and practice to get right.
You may have watched my episode on chit-chat a few weeks back. In that episode, we discussed ways to improve the flow of your informal conversations with a few simple techniques and a shift in how you think about small talk.
And in this episode, I’d like to share specific conversation starters you can memorize so you can make small talk, no matter where you are.
Learn to be more confident in small talk conversations
I’m guessing you want to have better conversations in English, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t have clicked on this episode about small talk!
Well, I have a new course available designed to help you master social situations and everyday conversations in your professional life. It teaches you how to chit-chat with confidence about the weather, current events, film, food, and much more.
You’ll also discover the typical phrases that American English speakers frequently use when socializing, get techniques to make you a good conversationalist, as well as understand cultural differences on a deeper level.
If you want to start interesting conversations without feeling awkward make real connections in business, click here for more information.
Where to Make Small Talk?
As for small talk, well, it can happen anywhere.
Often, we make small talk when we’re waiting in line. At the grocery store, the dentist office, the bus stop, the coffee shop, the movie theater, the post office….
Well, I think you get the idea…
Social events, such as a party or networking event is another opportunity for small talk.
In these situations, small talk is also called “mingling.” But they mean the same thing – short, informal, friendly chit-chat with people you don’t know very well.
There are several safe topics for making small talk.
These safe topics include:
- The weather
- Current events (without being too controversial, unless you know how to manage conversations on sensitive topics)
- TV series & movies
- Hobbies & free-time activities
- Your weekend
Now, in some cultures talking about work with someone you don’t know very well is considered rude. However, if you make small talk with Americans, you’ll find we like to talk about work a lot.
Making small talk about work
A simple conversation starter about work is to ask, “What do you do?” This means “what do you do for work?”, and the correct answer is your job title, or your main activity.
For example, “I’m the CEO of Revolution Cosmetics”, or “I run my own software security business.”
Although work is usually a topic most people can relate to, it can be a tricky subject.
Someone may not enjoy their job, or find talking about work tedious – so if you do ask about work, here are a few ideas to keep the conversation unexpected and encourage more interesting responses.
For example, you could ask:
- “Did you have a good week at work, or are you more looking forward to the weekend?”
- “My younger brother wants to start his own company (or other profession, or activity). Do you have any advice I can pass on?”
These questions are more specific, and create an opportunity for a more open-ended response rather than the usual “What do you do?” conversation starter.
Making small talk about the weather
Talking about the weather is a safe topic. It’s a shared experience, everyone can relate to the weather.
You can use this topic as a conversation starter in a variety of situations, in line at the grocery store, with the barista at a coffee shop, or at a party.
Here are a few examples of weather starter conversation:
- “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
- “Pretty rotten day out today…”
- “How about this crazy weather?”
- “Can you believe all of this snow we’ve been having?”
- “It looks like it’s going to snow this weekend”
- “Wow, we couldn’t ask for a nicer day, could we?”
As you can see, you can say pretty much anything to comment on the weather.
And it doesn’t have to be deep or even particularly interesting. Talking about the weather is like a door. You’re opening the conversation to go into a more interesting direction.
You make a comment on the weather, the other person responds, and then you can pick up on something to continue the conversation in a more interesting, personal direction.
Making small talk at the Grocery Store
Let’s say you’ve been waiting in line at the grocery store. You’re bored, and you’d like to pass the time.
Maybe you suspect other people waiting in line are bored too. And little do they suspect, they’re about to become someone you can practice English with!
You could start a conversation with:
- “Wow, I didn’t think it would be so busy today!”
- “It looks like we might be waiting awhile, huh?”
- “Looks like Monday mornings are rush hour here!”
- “I’ll have to remember not to shop on Monday mornings.”
Are you noticing a pattern here?
Small talk at the grocery store often centers on complaining about waiting. That’s fine and builds camaraderie. Misery loves company, as we say in English.
So use your shared situation to make a little small talk! You have nothing to lose because you’ll probably never see that person again!
Making small talk at the Coffee Shop
Let’s say you’re at the coffee shop and you want to make friendly small talk with your barista.
You could start with:
- “How’s your day been so far?”
This is especially nice when they ask YOU “How are you today?” You return the question to them (after answering, of course!) Not many people probably ask them how they are feeling.
So if you ask “I’m fine, and how’s your day been so far?”, you’re almost sure to get a smile!
Or you could comment on something that’s changed in the store or a new item on the menu.
For example, “Ooooh, I see you have a new pastry here. Have you tried it?”
Since this is a service transaction, the conversation probably won’t go much further than that. But it’s an excellent opportunity to practice short, mini conversations in English to build your confidence.
Making small talk at a Party
Some people thrive in party mode, and others feel less confident. Here are a few conversation starters for the next time you’re mingling at a party or networking event.
You can ask how someone else knows the host of the party:
- “So, how do you know Robert?”
Or if you’re at a networking event, ask how they learned about the event:
- “So how did you hear about this event?”
Or you could compliment them on something. For this, don’t be too too personal, or it’s a little creepy. Pick something neutral, like:
- “I really love your earrings, where did you get them?”
- “I like your shoes! They’re very original!”
- “That scarf goes really well with your complexion. Blue must be your color!”
If you know the person already, and you know that they recently did something remarkable, feel free to compliment them on that. Everyone loves an ego boost!
- “I read your article yesterday in “The Atlantic”. How does it feel to be a published author?”
Be sure to watch the episode to see these examples in action!
How about you?
We might call it “small talk” but it’s really anything but small. Friendships, business partnerships, mentorships, marriages – just about anything can be founded on small talk.
I hope these conversation starters have given you ideas to go out there and strike up a conversation.
You have nothing to lose, and a world of relationships and improved American English speaking skills to gain!
Now, what about you?
Do you have any tried and true conversation starter ideas? If so, share them in the comments!
If you’ve been a student of American English for years now and still feel awkward making small talk, check out my new course designed to help you master social situations and everyday conversations in your professional life.
Thank you for learning with Speak English with Christina, and I’ll see you next time!
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