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Paul Sparks - Online English Lesson Plans, Lesson Material and Ideas for Oral English Lessons, Hunan University of Science and Technology...



ORAL ENGLISH: How To Make Small Talk


    What is Small Talk? What is it about? When does it happen?

    In most English-speaking countries, it is normal and necessary to make "small talk" in certain situations. Small talk is a casual form of conversation that "breaks the ice" or fills an awkward silence between people. Just as there are certain times when small talk is appropriate, there are also certain topics that people often discuss during these moments. The hardest part about making small talk is knowing how to start a conversation.

    WHO makes small talk?

    People with many different relationships use small talk. The most common type of people to use small talk are those who do not know each other at all. Though we often teach children not to talk to strangers, adults are expected to say at least a few words in certain situations. It is also common for people who are only acquaintances, often called a "friend of a friend", to use small talk. Other people who have short casual conversations are office employees who may not be good friends but work in the same department. Customer service representatives, waitresses, hairdressers and receptionists often make small talk with customers.

    WHAT do people make small talk about?

    There are certain "safe" topics that people usually make small talk about. The weather is probably the number one thing that people who do not know each other well discuss. Sometimes even friends and family members discuss the weather when they meet or start a conversation. Another topic that is generally safe is current events. As long as you are not discussing a controversial issue, such as a recent law concerning equal rights, it is usually safe to discuss the news. Sports news is a very common topic, especially if a local team or player is in a tournament or play-off or doing extremely well or badly. Entertainment news, such as a celebrity who is in town, is another good topic. If there is something that you and the other speaker has in common, that may also be acceptable to talk about. There are also some subjects that are not considered acceptable when making small talk. Discussing personal information such as salaries or a recent divorce is not done between people who do not know each other well. Compliments on clothing or hair are acceptable; however, you should never say something (good or bad) about a person's body. Negative comments about another person not involved in the conversation are also not acceptable: when you do not know a person well you cannot be sure who their friends are. You do not talk about private issues either, because you do not know if you can trust the other person with your secrets or personal information. Also, it is not safe to discuss subjects that society deems controversial such as religion or politics.

    WHERE do people make small talk?

    People make small talk just about anywhere, but there are certain places where it is very common. Most often, small talk occurs in places where people are waiting for something. For example, you might chat with another person who is waiting for the bus to arrive, or to the person beside you waiting to get on an aeroplane. People also make small talk in a doctor's or dentist's waiting room, or in queues at the grocery store. At the office, people make small talk in elevators or lunchrooms and even in restrooms, especially if there is a line-up. Some social events (such as a party) require small talk among guests who do not know each other very well.

    WHEN do people make small talk?

    The most common time for small talk to occur is the first time you see or meet someone on a given day. For example, if you see a co-worker in the lounge you might say hello and discuss the sports or weather. However, the next time you see each other you might just smile and say nothing. If there is very little noise, that might be an indication that it is the right time to initiate a casual conversation. You should only spark up a conversation after someone smiles and acknowledges you. Do not interrupt two people in order to discuss something unimportant such as the weather. If someone is reading a book or writing a letter at the bus stop it is not appropriate to initiate a conversation either.

    WHY do people make small talk?

    There are a few different reasons why people use small talk. The first, and most obvious, is to break an uncomfortable silence. Another reason, however, is simply to fill time. That is why it is so common to make small talk when you are waiting for something. Some people make small talk in order to be polite. You may not feel like chatting with anyone at a party, but it is rude to just sit in a corner by yourself. After someone introduces you to another person, you do not know anything about them, so in order to show a polite interest in getting to know them better, you have to start with some small talk.

    If you can't make small talk then you will have difficulty in approaching people. Just think about all the possibilities this eliminates.

    Speaking Exercise:
    Break up into pairs or small groups to initiate practice conversations. For example, standing at the bus stop, seeing someone in a shop or meeting new people at a party.

    Small Talk Situations:

    Situation 1: The first date...
    You and your date are sitting at a cafe after having seen a movie. This is always a tricky one because your small talk should lead to interesting conversation and make a great first impression (assuming you like your date).

    Ask a lot of questions
    Asking your date many questions is always a safe thing to do, since not only does it help you get to know her and provides the basis of good conversation, but asking questions is also a turn-on for women.

    Questions show that you have a genuine interest in your date, as long as you show her that you also listen to her responses (she may quiz you later, believe me).

    Ask her questions that are:
    * Work-related: what she does; how she likes it; how long she's been working there, etc.
    * Family-related: what her family's like; what they do; whether they're close, etc.
    * Hobby-related: what she likes to do in her spare time; what she does on weekends, etc.
    * Pop culture-related: what kind of music she likes; what her favourite movie is; whether she liked the movie you just saw, etc.

    First-date conversation topics can be a whole article unto itself, but in a nutshell, keep the conversation light, interesting and avoid anything philosophical, sexual and personal.

    Situation 2: The acquaintance...

    You're at your best friend's engagement party, and a man who looks familiar approaches you and starts talking to you. You just want to scope out the single women and make your way to the bar for more vodka shots, but this guy is awkwardly standing next to you.

    Talk about who you know and what you have in common
    If you have common ground with a stranger, use it to your advantage. Don't take the opportunity to gossip and bad mouth your mutual friends, rather use it in order to fill up space and maybe make a friend while you're at it.

    If you're at an engagement party, for example, say how happy you are for the couple, and ask questions about the person's relationship with the bride or groom, like how long they've known each other.

    And if you know he's a member of the same golf club, talk about your drive, slice and what happened at the club the other day.

    Situation 3: The manager / colleague...

    You're at your company's corporate Christmas party, and you're sitting at the same table with your department -- which translates into your colleagues and managers.

    How do you make small talk with your manager, who only talks at you while barking orders?

    Stay informed with news and pop culture
    Even though you want to make it look like you take your job seriously, it's a good idea to show your manager that you still have time to watch the news, read the paper and see movies. In other words, that you make time to stay informed and that you're a well-rounded man. Your life should not only consist of the codes, laws and rules that you encounter at work.

    Make small talk by mentioning whatever's in the news lately. "Did you hear about what happened in England?" Or ask your manager whether he's seen the latest James Bond flick.

    When talking about current affairs, try to avoid political topics; so if you know your boss is a devout Republican, don't tell a George W. Bush joke, no matter how funny you think it is.

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