By TJ Taylor
You survived the three hour meeting. You desperately need a coffee before the next meeting begins.
You are enjoying your coffee in silence and you see John from the London office walking towards you.
You become nervous. You know what is about to happen. It has happened so many times before.
John: It’s a lovely day!
You: Yes, it’s very nice.
John: How are you?
You: Good, thanks. How are you?
John: Fine, thanks.
The pause feels like an eternity.
You: Erm…it rained a lot last week, didn’t it?
We’ve all been there – at a wedding, a work function, or even an awkward tinder date. Asking and answering the same predictable questions, socialising with new people and making the dreaded ‘small talk’.
Surely something with the word ‘small’ in shouldn’t create such a BIG feeling of fear and anxiety, right?
All too often it does!
Getting comfortable with socialising
Don’t worry, it’s not just English learners who feel anxious and worried about socialising. Native speakers and even teachers feel it too – and they’re using their own language.
As an English teacher I have vivid memories of panicking before teaching my first ever lessons. What if I can’t think of anything to say? What if I’m boring? What if the whole lesson is just a long, awkward silence?
So how can we overcome this fear of socialising?
The key to socialising with confidence is small talk.
This guide will help you master the art of small talk. With a few tips and a little knowledge, you can stop those feelings of anxiety the next time you need to socialise in English.
So what is small talk?
Small talk is the first step in socialising, to find some common interests and help you get comfortable with a new person.
It’s usually viewed as ‘light or casual conversation’ about uninteresting topics. But if it’s about unimportant topics, small talk can’t be important, right?
For this reason it’s often seen as useless, a way to fill time and avoid silence – but it is so much more than that!
Why do we need it?
Small talk allows us to create connections in our personal and professional lives.
According to a study at the Midwestern University, when people do not progress in their jobs, 80% of the time it is not because of a lack of business knowledge or ability, but because of bad communication skills.
Not only does it improve our opportunities at work, it also makes us more intelligent. A study at the University of Michigan showed that friendly conversation can improve our problem-solving skills.
Let’s start with 6 basics – 3 do’s and 3 don’ts:
1. Do make eye contact
I know this can feel difficult when you are shy, but constantly looking at the floor is unlikely to lead to great conversation. You need to look them in the eyes and speak to them directly.
If you find this difficult, imagine a triangle on the person’s face. Move your focus to different points of the triangle at regular intervals.
2. Prepare some topics
What topics you select is important, and we will discuss that more later. However, it’s always a good idea to prepare a few topics before that you are confident talking about.
3. Be aware of your body language
Although it can vary from culture to culture, non-verbal communication can be just as important as what you say.
As a general rule try to stand up straight with your arms uncrossed, and don’t stand too close to the other person. Although harder for some nationalities than others (I’m looking at you Italians!), don’t gesticulate too much as it can be distracting.
4. Don’t interrupt
You might be excited that they love Game of Thrones too – finally, a shared interest! However, even if you are super eager to share your thoughts, don’t interrupt, wait for the right time.
Speaking at the same time as someone else is speaking is never a good idea.
5. Don’t overshare
If life is not going great at that exact moment, it can be difficult to want to have an enthusiastic conversation about general topics.
However, it is unlikely to make the conversation any easier by telling a complete stranger that your bills are overdue, that you hate your job, and that you might murder your spouse if they leave their clothes on the bathroom floor again.
6. Don’t worry too much
The truth is everybody panics about what impression they make. While you’re panicking about the word you feel you’ve just mispronounced, or what to say next, the person you are talking to is probably panicking about something they said.
We all want to make a good impression, and we all probably walk away thinking more about ourselves and what we said, rather than about the other person.
‘Well, do’s and don’ts about small talk are fine, but how do I actually make conversation?!’ I imagine this is what you are thinking right now.
Your secret tool for making conversation is…questions!
Question your way
One of the best and most simple tools you can use when socialising is questions.
It’s not a big secret that everyone likes to talk about themselves – even if we all deny it sometimes! So ask the other person lots of questions.
What kind of questions?
When making questions it’s always best to use open questions, and avoid closed questions when possible.
Closed questions are those questions where the other person can only give a yes/no response. Most closed questions begin with are/was, will/won’t, did/didn’t, and would.
- Did you like the film?
- Have you been here before?
- Are you a friend of the host?
Using closed questions that only allow a limited response can cause conversation to feel forced and create awkward silences.
Open questions are great because they force the responder to give a more detailed answer. They cannot answer with a simple yes/no so the other person volunteers more information, which allows you to ask follow up questions.
- What did you think of the film?
- It was great. I really enjoyed the action scenes.
- Yeah, me too. I love action films. What type of film is your favourite?
- Is this your first time here? What do you think of it?
- No, I’ve been a few times. I always love the food here.
- Yes, it’s great isn’t it? What type of food do you like?
- How do you know the host?
- We went to university together. It feels like a long time ago now!
- How did you meet at university?
- We lived in the same halls of residence.
Creating open questions
Most open ended questions are formed using ‘how’ or the 5 ‘wh‘ question words:
The structure of open questions is:
|Question word||Auxiliary verb||Subject||Verb|
|Who||do||you||know||at the party?|
|What||do||you||like||about the city?|
Another simple way to begin an open question is with the phrase ‘tell me about…’
- tell me about your hobbies
- tell me about your job
Although be careful with your intonation – you don’t want your questions to sound like an interrogation!
For more advice and help with ‘wh‘ and open questions you can download this guide to creating questions:
So what’s next?
Okay, so now you know how to start a conversation, but what do you talk about?
In English textbooks the weather is often presented as the holy grail of small talk but, really, who wants to talk about the weather? Do you?
Besides, if you are in England there is generally only one type of weather – grey, cold and raining. So it’s not a topic that is going to lead to a long conversation!
What we discuss during small talk can vary greatly from country to country, and it’s important to take this into consideration.
For example, in China you will often be asked about your salary, as part of small talk, or about how much something costs.
In China they are completely innocent and normal questions. But for a British person it would be a shock, and considered rude or intrusive.
Of course it’s impossible to remember what subjects are acceptable for every country in the world. It’s also important to understand that if someone asks you a question that you feel is rude, they probably don’t mean to offend you.
For example, in the UK and US questions about age are a big no-no, but in Vietnam it’s an important question so they can address you in the right way.
So what can we talk about?
Well there are always a few standard safe topics:
- arts and entertainment
- news (though not controversial topics)
- location of the venue
If you’re not sure what to say about these topics, don’t worry. You can download this PDF guide with lots of example questions to practise.
So now we know what to talk about. But what topics are best to avoid?
Although it changes depending on nationality and country, these are 6 areas that are always best to avoid:
- Politics – political discussions can be interesting, but people often have very strong opinions and you don’t want to accidently cause an argument. It’s best to save these debates for close friends and family.
- Religion – see above!
- Age – as mentioned before, in some cultures this is important, but for most people it’s a topic best avoided.
- Appearance – a compliment about an outfit is always appreciated. If you genuinely love someone’s outfit, tell them! But a comment on whether you think the other person is beautiful, handsome or looking tired might be awkward.
- Gossip – yes, Peter in accounting may be having an affair with Carol in HR, but it’s probably best not to discuss this at the annual conference.
- Death and illness – it may seem like I’m stating the obvious, but you’d be amazed at what some people say when they are nervous. These topics fall into the category of not oversharing. Small talk should be light and entertaining.
Keeping the conversation going
Okay, so now you have your questions, you have your topics, but how do you keep the other person engaged and chatty?
Well, this is where something called ‘back channelling’ comes in. It sounds complicated, but it’s not.
Back channelling is the small phrases and words we use to assure the other person that we understand and are interested in what they are saying.
For example, ‘uh-huh’, ‘okay’ or ‘yeah’.
Why is back channelling helpful?
It helps the conversation flow – if the person speaking feels that you are interested in them, they will relax and feel comfortable, which will cause them to open up and talk more about themselves.
The most common phrases, interjections, and words for back channelling are:
- oh no!
- I see
It really is that easy!
Okay, I admit that nodding your head every so often and saying ‘yeah’ may not feel like revolutionary advice, but it’s amazing the difference it can make.
There is nothing worse than talking to somebody who is staring blankly at you, making you question if they are listening to you, or planning what they would like to have for dinner.
Imagine yourself in these two scenarios – would you feel more comfortable in the first or second scenario?
A: I really enjoy windsurfing.
A: I try to go as often as possible.
Would you continue talking to somebody who gives no response and seems uninterested?
Person A in the scenario above would eventually become self-conscious that they are being boring, and maybe try to find an excuse to leave.
Now imagine if the conversation went like this:
A: I really enjoy windsurfing.
B: Wow! Really?
A: Yeah, I try to go as often as possible at the weekend or during holidays. But it can be hard to find the time with work though.
B: Yeah, I can imagine. How did you get into windsurfing?
A: Well, the first time I tried was when I was a teenager on holiday…
A: I wasn’t very good, but I took a few lessons and I’ve loved it ever since.
These few simple words, and non-verbal gestures such as nodding, show the speaker that you are engaged and want them to carry on talking – which will encourage them to volunteer more information and speak more.
But one important thing!
Obviously now that you know about back channelling, I don’t mean that you should fake your interest in the other person.
Why can’t you just fake your interest with a few nods and ‘uh-huh’s?
Because the most important secret of all is that to be good at talking, you need to be good at listening.
People who actively listen and acknowledge what is said to them will always have information to use to continue the conversation.
A: So, do you have any brothers or sisters?
B: Yes, I have two brothers.
A: Oh right, what do they do?
B: Well, one lives in Japan and is an engineer, and the other is an accountant in York.
A: Wow, Japan! How did he end up living in Japan?
B: He works for an international company and they relocated him there a few years ago.
A: Amazing. Have you ever been to visit him there?
B: No, but I’d love to one day.
A: Yeah, I’d love to go to Japan as well. What about your other brother in York? Do you visit him often?
B: Yeah, I go see him a couple of times a year.
A: What do you think of York?
Pay attention to what the other person says, show interest using back channelling, and use the information they give to ask more open questions. This will keep your conversation flowing.
If you don’t understand what the person said, don’t panic! Just ask them to repeat it.
I assure you they won’t mind, and asking them to repeat something so you can understand shows that you are engaged.
Here are some phrases you can use:
- Sorry, I didn’t quite hear what you said. Could you tell me again?
- Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Could you repeat what you said?
- What was that you said?
- I didn’t quite understand. Could you please say it another way?
- I’m sorry. I didn’t understand. Would you mind speaking more slowly?
- Sorry, what was that?
How to escape
You’ve survived socialising! You’ve listened, asked and answered questions, and used the best ‘I’m so interested in what you are saying’ facial expression that you have.
Except now you’ve had enough – how do you escape politely?
Here are some expressions you could use:
- Well, it’s been lovely chatting but I’d better let you go.
- Sorry, do you know where the bathroom is?
- I have a question I wanted to ask [name]before he/she leaves, but I hope to see you again later.
- Anyway, I don’t want to take up all your time. It’s been lovely meeting you.
- Have you met[name]? (then you can introduce them to a new person and politely leave)
- If you’ll excuse me, I’d best be off, but it’s been great talking to you.
You’ve done it! With some preparation, a few simple techniques, and some confidence, you’ll never fear socialising again.
Remember these 5 things:
- Be prepared – think of topics and questions before an event.
- Listen – the best socialisers are those who listen well.
- Be confident and don’t worry – most people are friendly and too anxious about their own conversational skills and language to be judging yours.
- Don’t dominate the conversation – a good conversation is like a tennis match.
- Ask questions!
Small talk is the foundation of socialising. Once you become confident with it you will be on your way to socialising in English with ease.
There are so many amazing and wonderful people in the world. Who knows where your next conversation will take you.
The exciting thing about small talk is that you never know what you will learn, what opportunities might open up, and which lifelong friends you might make.
Yes, we will all inevitably meet people who we don’t like or can’t get on with, but never let that damage your confidence. Learn from it and move on.
Some of us are born chatty, and some of us need a little practice – and that’s okay!
So, I’ll leave you with two clichéd but important pieces of advice:
“fake it ’til you make it”
“practice makes perfect”
The next time you are in an elevator with another person, or at a work event, talk to people.
The more you practise, the more confident you will be, and who knows where a little bit of small talk may lead.
Have you tried using more open questions? Have you made conversation with a stranger using the suggested topics? Do you have any questions? Let us know in the comments below!