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Business English: Making Small Talk

Making small talk is an essential skill in both our personal and professional lives. It breaks the ice with new people, allows us to find common ground and mutual interests, and to move onto more serious complex topics. For people speaking English as their second language, small talk becomes the first impression that you give to someone about your level of English as well as being an important first step in building your own confidence in your English skills with new people.

 

How to get good at small talk

 

The following video contains a brilliant breakdown of some of the reasoning for making small talk, as well as giving some essential tips and tactics for overcoming any issues that people might have with making small talk. Watch and listen, paying particular attention to any phrases that are used that you could use yourself.




Example Small Talk Dialogues

 

Below are a series of relatively basic small talk dialogues, the intention here is to get a feel for what is actually natural small talk using some common phraseology that native speakers might use themselves as well as thinking a bit about how emphasis and reduction are used to carry the meaning of our speech.

 

Dialogue 1: welcoming a visitor to your organisation...

·       Person 1: Hi there, my name is Joel, I'm from the English Department. I'm going to be leading the meeting today, it’s really good to meet you. How was the journey in?

·       Person 2: Hi good to meet you too! Yeah, the journey was fine, pretty uneventful actually, which is probably a good thing.

·       Person 1: Right, anyway, have you been here before? 

 

Note on reductions:

·       I'm going to be leading the meeting today = UmmGonnabe Leedin the meetin Tooday

·       How was the journey in = Howwuzzthe JurneyIn?


Dialogue 2: you've just sat down next to a colleague in a meeting...

·       Person 1: Hi there, how are you doing? (or How’s things?... How’s it going?)

·       Person 2: yeah good, what about yourself?

·       Person 1: ah, I’m fine, busy at the moment, but I think we all are.

·       Person 2: sure... do you have any plans for the weekend?...

 

Note on reductions:

·       How are you doing = HowwaYaDoIn?

·       do you have any plans for the = DjaHavvaNNee plans further


Dialogue 3: two colleagues who have not seen each other in a while...

·       Person 1: ah, Hi, I’ve not seen you in absolutely ages, are you okay?

·       Person 2: yeah, you’re right it has been a while. But yeah, fine, what about yourself?

·       Person 1: ah you know, same old....

·       Person 2: right.... anyway, what's going on with your department, I heard you have a new manager now... 


Dialogue 4: between a senior manager and junior member of staff.

·       Person 1: Hi, how are you doing? Are you very busy at the moment?

·       Person 2: yeah I’m good, busy, but you know, everything is just about under control.

·       Person 1: have you got any leave planned any time soon?

·       Person 2: yeah sort of, I’ve got a couple of long weekends planned in the next couple of months, nothing special.... how about yourself?


Further to these dialogues, the following link on the Business Spotlight website gives some excellent further examples.


Cultural Perspectives and Topics

 

When engaging with English native speakers, though I'm mainly thinking about British and American people, the kind of things that you might talk about, or indeed not, are quite predictable - you don't need to be particularly sensitive to cultural sensitivities. In fact, English speakers seem to find silence slightly awkward, and would prefer to make small talk than to let a silence become awkward, so ultimately anything that you say to get the conversation going is going to be welcomed!


General Ideas:

But, if you want a couple of ideas, the smallest of small talk can be pulled out of things like the weather (but remember that jokes about it raining all the time in England are boring...unless the person you are talking to is not from England... ), current news (it might be seen as more neutral to talk about the death of the queen than the war in the Ukraine though), national sports (such as the women's EM) and entertainment (whatever happened the night before on Britain's Got Talent, or Dancing on Ice would probably get a good response) are usually safe and neutral conversation starters, especially when you’re speaking to a group. These are popular topics, but of course not for everybody, so think about what is most likely to be of interest to the person that you are speaking to.

 

The Recent Past and Near Future: 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 - these open ended questions are good for getting the other person to start talking about something that is relevant to themselves. “How has your day been”?...“How was your weekend”?...“Do you have any interesting plans for the evening?”

 

The Workplace:

Keep things works related, and avoid anything to start with that would be considered too personal (don't complain about a work colleague for example...), instead focus on more generic questions about the other person’s role, how long they have been with the company, where they worked before, any new developments within the organisation or upcoming events etc etc... “I'm not sure we’ve met before - which department are you from?”...“Have you been as busy as I have recently?”...“How long have you been working here?”...

 


Putting this into practice

Having a few ideas beforehand for what you might say to start a conversation with a stranger is going to be essential – make a list of relevant small talk questions that you could imagine using yourself. For existing students, I would always encourage students to make use of the lesson time to actually practice using these sentences in conversation with myself – students can be given the opportunity to take the lead with starting conversation at the start of each lesson as a way of practicing!


________________________


These materials can also be downloaded in pdf form here;


Making Small Talk
.pdf
Download PDF • 289KB

 

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