Small talk can be awkward and pointless but it is present in our everyday lives, regardless of the language we are speaking. It seems logical to deduce that if you can master it in your mother tongue, transferring that knowledge into your English conversations should be straightforward. However, it is not always the case. This could be a major concern for business English learners and users, whose command of small talk can lead up to creating the right connections when it comes to networking. For travellers, it can create situations that lead up to a much more enriching trip or even to striking up new friendships.
Why small talk can be safer than big talk in the early stages?
In essence, until you get to know a little bit about the person you are talking to, it is better to stay on the safe side. It is certainly more enlightening to engage in deep conversations (big talk) and although small talk can occasionally lead to that, we can’t always count on it.
These short inconsequential conversations are simply a polite exchange and that is exactly the purpose they serve: to fill awkward silences. Based on how this exchange develops, either of you can give the cue to moving forward into more insightful topics.
What sort of topics are not acceptable?
As a rule of thumb, logic applies here. Most people will feel tension when revealing personal details involving salary matters, political views, health problems or religion so it is better to steer clear of those.
Formal or informal language?
It really very much depends on the person you have in front of you but in general, these conversations are casual (and polite).
What topics, then?
The weather is an ice-breaker but that does not take you far. If you deem it appropriate, you can discuss the news (unless it is controversial).
As it happens, there is always a context that we can hold on to and use as a springboard to start the exchange (e.g. If you are attending a conference day, chatting about some of the talks during the coffee break seems a no-brainer). The environment you are immersed in will provide you with the cue to engage in conversation.
There are no fast and hard rules about it, but here are some random ideas in context.
- Do you know the cause of the delay?
- This service is quite reliable. I’ve never waited more than 5 minutes.
- How long have you been waiting?
- Oh, I didn’t expect this queue. If I had known about it, I would have brought a book.
With other travellers
- (Japan or another country, city…) is amazing/fascinating, isn’t it?
- Are you enjoying your stay in (country, city…)?
- What have you visited so far?
- Any tips on where to (not to) go?
- How are you finding the food/transport…?
At a meeting/conference break
- Are you finding it useful?
- What do you think about…. (something that was brought up during the conference or meeting)?
- I found the speaker’s arguments thought-provoking/ground-breaking/predictable/misinformed … (then, say why and your counterpart will surely keep the ball rolling).
During a break at work
- Looking forward to the holiday?
- I’m going to Ireland this summer. What do you have in mind?
- Has it been a hard day/week…?
- How was your weekend?
- What are you up to next weekend?
Weather comments, applicable anywhere
- Lovely/Awful day, isn’t it?
- Another day of rain! I wonder when this is going to stop.
- It looks like it’s going to snow soon.
- A pity we have to stay indoors in this spring-like weather, don’t you think?
- Summer is here! At last.
At a party (dancing, concert)
- Great atmosphere! Are you enjoying yourself?
- The music is too loud.
- This band is a revelation to me. Do you know if they have released any albums?
- I love your outfit, very stylish.
In the classroom before the teacher arrives
- Have you done the homework?
- How are you getting on with the course? I wish I had more time to go through my notes.
- Looking forward to the weekend?
Although questions abound here, these should be interspersed with comments. It would be weird to be constantly asking questions, wouldn’t it? You have to add some juicy content to keep the flow or else it may look like an interview.
I encourage you to create your own cues. These are just some random examples of short comments. If you often interact with English speakers, observe and learn from them. But a word of warning here: make sure you sound natural and friendly. Adapt your language to the situation. Don’t try to force you memorised lines on someone. It’s probably better to improvise and make some grammar mistakes than to deliver a perfect sentence that sounds artificial.