On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I want to give you all some tips and advice on how to improve your small talk skills!
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What is Small Talk?
A lot of the topics I cover on Thinking in English are focused on advanced discussions, debates, social issues, and political problems. Moreover, I’ve recorded episodes on how to be a better public speaker, perform well in job interviews, and become a more active learner.
However, in daily life “small talk” is probably a much more valuable and desirable skill for many English learners and listeners of this podcast. Rather than learning complicated grammar structures, learning how to use effective small talk is a really appealing and obviously useful skill.
Small talk is defined as “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions.”
Compared to prepared situations like a speech or presentation, conversations can actually be far more challenging and daunting tasks for language learners. You can plan a presentation, practice, double check your grammar, and prepare for any likely questions from the audience. But small talk can often take you by surprise!
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My Small Talk Experience
Let me give you an example of a recent casual conversation that left me completely confused. A few months ago I went to watch a baseball game in Tokyo, at the home stadium of the Tokyo Swallows (or as they are also commonly known as the Yakult swallows as they are sponsored by the Yakult yoghurt brand).
On the way home I stopped in at my local bar, ordered a beer, and struck up conversation with a few of the customers inside. I should mention that this conversation was completely in Japanese, and while I’m definitely not fluent I love speaking to people. I mentioned I had been to watch the Swallows play baseball, and the man to my left started to ask me what I thought about “nyusankin.”
This is a Japanese word – so don’t worry if you don’t understand it. I speak decent Japanese and I had no idea what it meant. I was trying to think of all the baseball or Tokyo terminology I knew, but I couldn’t work out what nyusankin meant. So, I pulled out my smartphone, opened up google translate, typed out nyusankin…., and the result was “lactic-acid bacteria.”
Turns out when I mentioned watching the Yakult Swallows, the bar decided not to talk about baseball but instead about fermented yoghurt drinks and specifically the bacteria inside. Nothing could prepare me for this conversation…. And this is why learning the basics of small talk is so important!
Small Talk is for Every Situation
Outside of social occasions and, in my case, bars, small talk is also an essential skill in business settings. In business, almost every situation starts with a conversation first. When you are hiring an employee, making a sale, negotiating a contract, or just discussing with your colleagues, small talk is an important part of all of these situations!
Small talk “breaks the ice” – it starts the conversation off on the right foot!
Small talk is not just difficult for English learners – it is something that everyone struggles with occasionally. However, for English learners small talk does pose extra challenges. Why? Well… it is a conversation about almost anything. As my anecdote earlier showed, you could face having to talk about lactic yoghurt drinks in a bar in Tokyo.
You all have excellent vocabulary skills, but most English learners struggle with having a wide vocabulary. It is incredibly difficult to discuss random unimportant topics if you don’t have the appropriate vocabulary. A few common, but very broad, small talk categories include the weather, entertainment, sports, family, work, food, travel, celebrity gossip, hobbies, or your hometown.
Can you respond to questions on all of these topics? Small talk I’ve been engaged in recently included the Amber Heard vs Johnny Depp trial, the best ramen restaurant in Western Tokyo, Fijian culture, Japan’s recent heatwave, and the results of recent rugby games… you definitely need a wide amount of vocabulary!
And over the last 6 or 7 years I’ve taught thousands of conversation classes online, which all involve a lot of small talk. I’ve definitely improved my ability to small talk over the last few years – so I thought I’d share a few tips and tricks that I have picked up over the year.
How to Improve Your Small Talk Skills?
The first thing to remember is that a conversation involves both speaking and listening. You need to concentrate and focus on both of these skills to become better at conversations and small talk.
Here are some tips on how to improve your small talk.
First tip is a simple one – listen! Try to be a good listener. Stay engaged in the conversation, and make comments relevant to what you hear! What is a good listener? Well, a good listener is someone who is actually interested in what other people have to say.
All too often English learners are busy thinking about their next comment instead of actually listening to what their conversation partner is saying – try not to make this mistake. Be a critical listener, try to understand the intentions of the other people, and make sure you are involved in the conversation!
I think a connected piece of advice to being a good listener is to encourage or help the other person to talk as much as possible. If you ask them questions or start conversations on topics your conversation partner is comfortable with, conversation becomes much easier. What topic can everyone talk about? Well… themselves! Start a conversation about the other person, and the conversation will naturally continue.
Tip number 2 is to ask questions. And not just any question, but ask good questions. Asking a question is the best way to start a conversation – and asking open-ended questions can get really interesting responses.
An open ended question is a question that encourages your partner to give a more detailed answer. For example, if you ask “Do you like football?” – the answer is either “yes” or “no” and often the conversation ends there. However, if you ask “What sport do you like?” the conversation has many different ways to advance.
I think open ended questions are the most useful tool for improving your small talk skills – they just help to keep the conversation going.
If you are having small talk with someone you have met before, you could try to remember details you’ve heard before about the person and ask questions about this. And then, ask follow up questions. For example, “I haven’t seen you since your vacation! How was your trip to New York?” After you hear their reply, you could ask something about the food, culture, weather, or experience!
Learn When to Listen and When to Speak
A conversation requires at least two people – remember this! Everyone involved should have the opportunity to speak, ask questions, listen, and be involved in the conversation. Of course, you should be an active participant in the conversation. But you shouldn’t completely control or dominate small talk – that is not the best way to make a fantastic impression. Make sure to ask questions of the other person so that you don’t just talk about yourself.
But, you should also avoid asking too many questions. If you just ask question after question it can start feeling like an interview or interrogation rather than small talk. So, learn when to listen, when to ask questions, and when to speak!
Research and be Prepared
Small talk topics can be various and wide ranging. If you know who you are going to talk with, you could think about the kind of topics they would be interested in. When I teach online, I tend to be very prepared for small talk with students from East Asia as I live here and research the region’s politics and social systems.
If you are meeting with a person or group of people who share a common interest (maybe football, or Marvel movies, or hiking) you could take some time to learn a little specific vocabulary related to these topics.
Small talk is often about current events… so another good tip is to keep up with recent events, read the news, and pay attention to the world. My friends are all interested in political issues and world news, so our small talk always tends to revolve around these issues!
Topics to Stay Away From
A final tip I want to introduce today is that there are some topics you should stay away from – especially in business situations or the first time you meet someone. Small talk is supposed to be a casual, polite conversation about unimportant issues.
Try to avoid talking about strong political beliefs or religion – talking about things like this can be a little off putting. You’re having a conversation, not trying to recruit or convince your conversation partner. When you talk about your own personal and strong convictions, it can sometimes make the small uncomfortable, especially if the other person disagrees with you.
A few topics you should avoid small talking about include finances or salaries, death, religion, politics, or really personal issues.
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Small talk can be daunting for English learners. The conversation can be about anything, the topics are wide ranging, and you need to be aware of what is being said! However, if you listen well, ask questions, prepare a few topics, and stay away from controversial topics, small talk can be a really enjoyable situation.
Do you have any tips for small talk in English?
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