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- Online English Lesson Plans, Lesson Material and Ideas for Oral English
(Speaking Lessons) from Hunan University of Science and Technology...
ENGLISH: Making 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
WHERE do people make
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
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
WHY do people make small
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
If you can't make small
talk then you will have difficulty in approaching people. Just think about
all the possibilities this eliminates.
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
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
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
* Work-related: what she does; how she likes it; how long she's been working
* Family-related: what her family's like; what they do; whether they're
* Hobby-related: what she likes to do in her spare time; what she does on
* Pop culture-related: what kind of music she likes; what her favourite
movie is; whether she liked the movie you just saw, etc.
topics can be a whole article unto itself, but in a nutshell, keep the
conversation light, interesting and avoid anything philosophical, sexual and
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
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.