You’re at a party or a lunch, and everyone is off talking to someone else.
You’re left standing next to one person who you don’t know.
Sure, you want to talk to them, but you have no idea what to say.
We’ve all been there.
The silence (time when there’s no sound) you get when two people don’t have anything to say is called an awkward silence. Awkward means uncomfortable and embarrassing.
To avoid these awkward silences, you need to know how to make small talk in English.
Small talk is the kind of conversation you make when you want to talk to someone but neither of you wants to get into a very deep or complicated conversation. It’s “small” because you talk about unimportant things, in a way that fills up silences and makes you both feel more comfortable and friendly with each other.
The more you practice small talk, the easier it will become.
Until you’re comfortable making your own small talk, you can start out by learning a few excellent topics for making small talk that will leave you sounding and feeling comfortable and confident.
Why Making Small Talk Is a Big Deal
There’s nothing “small” about small talk.
Being able to hold a conversation about something simple like the weather might seem like it’s not important, but it’s a key skill to have if you’re learning a language. Think about how many times you make small talk in your native language during the day.
Making small talk can help you:
- Avoid awkward silences
- Easily get to know someone new
- Seem friendlier
- Become closer with acquaintances and coworkers
- Sound more like a native speaker
You can make small talk pretty much any time you and one (or a few) other people are gathered in one location, aren’t busy and aren’t already talking about something. You can make small talk at a party, before a work meeting or while waiting for your food to microwave in the office.
You can ask someone how his morning was while you’re together on the elevator, or comment on the weather as you’re waiting for the bus.
Body Language Is Also a Language
Did you think you were only learning to speak English here? Your body says almost as much as your mouth when you speak English—and so do the bodies of other people.
For example, if you’re waiting in line to pay for something at the store, and the person in front of you is turned away from you, tapping their foot impatiently and glancing at their phone all the time, they probably don’t want to talk to you. If, on the other hand, the person in front of you turns around, catches your eye and smiles, you can try starting a small conversation.
You can make yourself more approachable by doing small things that will make a big difference. If you’re trying to make small talk, or want to show that you’re interested in a conversation, don’t cross your arms or your legs. Instead, make eye contact and smile!
Small Talk for Every Occasion
Some topics are universal, meaning you can use them anywhere and with anyone. Others are better suited for specific situations. For example, work-related topics might be better used with coworkers at the office, and hobby-related topics might be better with friends.
Small talk topics are small—that is, they’re not significant or important. Keep it positive, and avoid “heavy” topics, including anything negative or controversial (a topic many people disagree on).
Don’t be too random, and surprise the other person with a strange new topic. Let the conversation happen naturally instead of trying to ask questions like a list. The best small talk is the situational kind, something you observe about your environment and work into a conversation.
For example, you can tell the person you’re on the elevator with that the weather is terrible or ask if he’s looking forward to the weekend (if it’s a Friday), but you probably shouldn’t ask him what his hobbies are—that’s just strange!
7 English Small Talk Topics for Starting Friendly Conversations
Before you can get to know someone, it’s a good idea to introduce yourself.
You can introduce yourself to anyone you don’t know, or to remind someone you’ve met before who might have forgotten you. When you’re introducing yourself, you can add a little bit of information like where you first met, or what you do. You can even use your English learning as a conversation starter.
“Good morning! We always have coffee at the same time but we’ve never spoken before. My name is [Your Name].”
“Hello, how are you today? My name is [Your Name]. I’m still learning English so please let me know if I make any mistakes.”
“Hi Angela. You might not remember me but we met at Tom’s Christmas party last year. I’m [Your Name].”
2. Universal Topics
Topics that are universal can be shared by almost anyone.
Things like the weather, current news, sports and entertainment are usually safe conversation starters, especially when you’re speaking to a group—even if one person doesn’t really watch sports, someone else in the group might.
Although these topics are talked about by many, some people might not be fans of sports, or might not follow entertainment news, so if you can, try to match people’s interests to the topic you choose. For example, if you’ve heard them talking about big news stories in the past, you could try to talk about a news story from today.
“Did you watch the Oscars last week? I can’t believe Leonardo DiCaprio finally won one!”
“This weather is crazy! It was cold yesterday and today I came in with an open jacket. I hope it stays warm, don’t you?”
“That basketball game yesterday had me glued to my seat. Wasn’t that a great save at the very end?”
3. The Day
If you’re not sure what topic to talk about, or don’t have anything interesting to say, you can just ask someone about their day, or you can talk about yours.
For example, you could ask them:
- How was your day? / How has your day been so far?
- How have you been feeling today?
- What have you been doing today?
- Has anything exciting happened today?
- What are you planning for after work?
- Are you doing anything fun after work?
You can also share information about your day and how you’re doing, but try to keep a balance of talking and listening, so you both get to speak the same amount (and you’re not just talking about yourself the entire time).
Even if the person looks like they’ve been having a bad day, you can make it brighter just by making small talk! Make sure not to ask questions that are too personal, and instead offer some nice words of encouragement.
“Hey there. You look like you’re having a rough day. I hope it gets better for you.”
“Good morning! I went camping on Saturday, and of course it rained all day. Was your weekend any better?”
“The day is almost over! Do you have any interesting plans for the evening?”
4. The Workplace
Stay even less personal at work than in more casual places, and avoid gossiping (talking about other people who are not present)! Instead, you can talk about the day, an upcoming party or meeting, or ask about the person’s job.
“Hi Tom. How are things going over at the IT department today?”
“Good morning. I’m really looking forward to the party after work today. I hear Pam brought her famous carrot cake!”
“What a busy day. This is the first time I’ve gotten up from my seat all day! Are you busy too?”
Some of the best small talk is about where you and your conversation partner are located.
It’s something you both share, so there’s no worry that they won’t know what you’re talking about. Look around and find something to comment on, or look at your partner and find something nice to compliment them on. Nothing makes people feel better than a genuine compliment!
“I love your shoes today, they really pull your outfit together.”
“Did you see? They finally fixed the light in the break room. It’s been broken for almost a month!”
“Hey Pam, your cookies last night were delicious! Thank you for making them for the party.”
6. Common Interests
When you have something similar with your speaking partner, that means you have something to talk about. Find a mutual friend (a friend you both know) or a common interest or hobby, and you’ll have something to talk about.
Keep in mind that English speakers rarely actually say the word “hobby,” so asking “What are your hobbies?” sounds strange and unnatural. Try asking questions instead, based on observations.
“My cousin mentioned you last night. I didn’t know you knew her! Where did you meet?”
“I noticed your hat has a Yankees logo. Are you a fan of baseball too?”
“I tried baking cookies like yours last night and they came out terrible. How do you make them so good?”
You might have noticed by now that most of these small talk examples have something in common: They ask questions. A good way to start a conversation is to make a comment, then ask a question. This keeps the conversation from ending on your comment (and making things even more awkward!).
When asking questions, listen as much as you talk, and don’t get too personal with your questions. And remember to keep things positive!
“Hey, I heard you were thinking of adopting a new dog. Did you find one?”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you this for a while: how long have you been working here?”
“Your hair always looks great. What hair products do you use?”
The next time you’re standing with someone and no one is speaking, you know what to do!
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