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Making Small Talk

Making small talk, both personally and professionally, is a skill that everyone needs to have when speaking English.


Small talk is, at least in the way that I teach it, about being able to appropriately start a conversation with people – this might happen when you enter a meeting room and sit next to a colleague you don’t know very well, it might be that you have just bumped into the CEO of the company in a lift and need say something to them or you are simply talking to someone in a social context for the first time.


These materials are based around a series of short dialogues that are designed to show some examples of small talk. I will also give a couple of suggestions of small talk topics from a cultural perspective and link a video with some good ideas for carrying on the conversation, or at least moving onto something with a bit more content...


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the Dialogues


Something that I have learnt through my experience of teaching is that the biggest problems students have is firstly knowing what constitutes a natural and appropriate way of starting a sentence, and secondly being able to understand the kinds of phraseology that native speakers might use themselves, often using a lot of reduction which makes them very difficult to understand let alone choose an appropriate response.


I will present a series of short dialogues that are based on real life conversations that I have either had, or overheard.


  • 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, so it's great that you could be here. 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: Certainly, anyway, have you been here before (to our office/ area/ country)?


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 plan 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 Joel, 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?


____________ 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 persons 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 we have met - which department are you from?”...“Have you been as busy as I have recently?”...“How long have you been working here?”...


Further ideas: This video offers some really interesting ideas for making small talk and is worth watching as well; it's based on how Joe Rogan engages with people - I certainly don't agree with everything that Joe Rogan says, but I certainly think that he presents himself well in conversation with people...


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Practice yourself with a couple of Scenarios


Here are several scenarios that you might find yourself in. For each scenario, think about a couple of sentences that you could use to make small talk. Write them down, try and think of sentences that you would actually want to say and would feel natural.


  1. Business meeting: you have arrived at a meeting a few minutes before it is due to start, you want to start talking to your colleague sat next to you, what do you say?

  2. Social event: you have just arrived at a social event and need to start a conversation with someone who you haven’t met before, how do you start?

  3. In a lift: You have just got into a lift with the CEO of your company who you haven’t spoken to before, what do you say?

  4. On the train: you are sat on a train in England and notice that everyone is sitting in silence, what could you say to break the ice? *this is a trick question - it's basically illegal to speak to a stranger on a train in England...

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