Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

September 1, 2009

Small talk – what to say and how to say it.

One of the most common questions I get from my Advanced students, especially those who are working in an English language environment, is; “how do we begin a conversation?”

Arriving at the office, having coffee or lunch together, even in the few minutes before a meeting begins, there are moments which require conversation outside of the job. This is called small talk or phatic language. It has a social English rather than a linguistic purpose. We use it all the time.

“How are you?” do we really want a real response to this question? It is simply an extension to the greeting and a polite way of connecting. We would be very surprised if the person responded with a catalogue of ailments, we usually expect the answer to be  “fine, how are you?” or something along those lines.

Let’s look at 3 possible scenarios and suggest a few techniques for small talk.

1. You arrive early for a departmental meeting. A colleague you know, but not well, is already sitting at the table.

  • Greet first, hello/hi, I think we’re a bit early! or (if you are sure of the person) I hope this won’t be a long meeting..
  • Can I/is it OK if I sit here/I’ll just sit here
  • Did you get to the presentation on…(related to the meeting)? What did you think?
  • How are things working out with Fred? (new boss/new colleague)
  • Are/Have you been involved in .. (some project, initiative in the company – it may be related to the meeting) if the answer is yes, talk about the project if no then you could ask what they are working on and how it’s going. At this point the feedback should help you to continue the conversation until other people arrive.

If the meeting is external and the person you sit next to is a stranger you can use the following;

  • Hi, I’m …. from ….
  • Have you travelled far?
  • How do you find  Manchester etc…
  • Have you been to this ….. before?
  • If this is a networking session then you will probably move on to your respective jobs/businesses at this point, or others will join you. If not then the event will begin.

2. You are at a social event. Your friend/colleague introduces you to another friend/colleague and immediately leaves you to go and do something. You are left with a complete stranger.

  • How do you know X?/Have you known X long?
  • What do you do?
  • Where do you work/which department do you work in?
  • Have you been here before?
  • What do/did you think of the band?/venue/presentation etc..

In this vein you should be able to keep the conversation going until your friend returns.

3. You go to the office canteen for lunch and sit with some members of your department. You know them quite well.

  • Hi, can I join you?
  • What do you make of this weather?/Isn’t it stifling/freezing?/What amazing weather?
  • Did you see the football/rugby/cricket last night? I think we were robbed/I think we deserved to loose/what did you think of the penalty decision? etc…..
  • Did you watch The Apprentice (some popular TV programme) last night? Who do you think will win? Can you believe what they did? etc…
  • Are you going to the meeting this afternoon/conference next week/away day on Friday etc….
  • How was your holiday?/Are you going away this year?/How did you like Malta? etc…
  • Did you hear the announcement from Steve today? What do you think?/Have you heard the latest about ……

These are people you will know something about or perhaps share a common interest. Depending on who is in the group (don’t talk about a topic in detail if this only includes one of the group). Work talk is fine if it’s newsworthy but often people want to discuss other things during these breaks.

Some useful topics for small talk – colleagues

  • Sport – this is always a safe bet especially when an important match has been on the television. Keep it general and be sensitive to people who may not share your enthusiasm – move on to something else. 
  •  TV and films – again these are good safe topics for small talk within your work environment. Keep comments general and be sensitive to the group dynamic (in a mixed group you might not want to discuss anything overtly sexual or perhaps too violent)
  •  Recent news headlines –these are also good topics for small talk. Adhere to the rule of keeping conversation general and try to get other people’s opinions before you voice your own ( you don’t want to put your foot in it!)
  •  Important or recent work-related news – a safe topic but keep discussion to a minimum as small talk is usually non work-related
  •  Personal information –  if you know that someone has been on holiday, got married, had a baby etc.. it is ok to ask about this. The same rules apply; keep it general and short and be sensitive to the others in the group.
  • The weather– we’re English and this is our favourite topic! Yes, we do talk about the weather a lot. It is a safe common subject especially when it has been significant – very hot, cold wet etc.. A good opener.

Some useful topics for small talk – strangers

  •  Details of their journey
  • Job/Role
  • Experience vis-à-vis the event
  • Opinion vis-à-vis the event
  • Mutual colleagues/friends (in a purely social context)
  • The weather – a useful fallback

With strangers it is important not to be personal and keep all the talk fairly objective. We are making contact and need distance.

 Small talk can greatly enhance your English performance and creates good English style. However to be competent at social English it is important to have something to contribute and this means watching TV, reading the papers and being generally aware about what is culturally important to the people you are meeting and with whom you are working!

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