I have never met a single English language learner who has said the following: “I can’t wait to use small talk at the next social or work gathering with native English speakers! I love the way it forces me to practice my speaking skills on a variety of topics!”
Small talk – meaning chatting about non-controversial topics to initiate getting to know someone, or to be polite in social gatherings – is a necessary skill in U.S. and U.K. cultures, and one that I highly recommend you work on if you want to feel more comfortable while living and working in English-dominant cultures.
However, I can tell you that in more than 20 years, I have rarely had a student or client who embraces small talk as the skill-building opportunity it can be. This is what I hear instead:
I get it. Did you know that I also hate small talk? It feels inauthentic to me, too, and zaps a lot of my energy.
But I grew up with U.S. culture and recognized that people who are effective at small talk really do create more opportunities for themselves. I realized I needed a way of feeling more comfortable in situations where small talk is inevitable, like work conferences, bonding with a new team or colleagues, or parties.
If any of the above statements sounds like you, then I hope some of the following small talk strategies can help. I use many of them myself:
1) Don’t be afraid to be the person who asks the questions. Most people love to talk about themselves, and this allows you to control the conversation instead of waiting anxiously while you wonder where the topic will go.
2) Related to the above, have a list of ‘conversation prompt’ questions ready for any occasion. Five questions should be enough. These can be things like:
-What brings you to this (event, party, conference, etc.)?
-What are some of your favorite things about this (city, area, neighborhood, etc.)?
-Has anything interesting happened to you today?
-Where are you investing your time these days?
-Is there anything you would change about this (party, event, conference, etc.)?
3) When answering questions, think ‘one step further’ with your responses, for example:
Stranger: “Where are you from?”
You: I’m from Madrid.
Stranger: “Where are you from?”
You: “I’m from Madrid. It’s a lot like this city in some ways, but very different in others.” Then go on to give some details.
Now you’ve opened up a real conversation that can lead somewhere more meaningful!
4) The sports issue: at the very least, learn the names of the professional sports teams from your area or the place you are visiting and which sports they are connected with.
Even if you have no interest in the sport itself, this will help you recognize what people are talking about and you can always ask questions like:
“Who are their star players this year?” or
“How have they been doing this season?”
Yes, this may feel inauthentic as you listen patiently with no interest, but it’s less awkward than standing in a group of people and being suddenly shut out of a conversation when the topic turns to sports.
The list of pro teams in the DC area is here.
Emergency move! Just excuse yourself and go to the bathroom
If you just ‘can’t deal’ as we say in English, this one works every time! It’s also strategic because you can take a few minutes to think about your questions and responses and then get back out there if needed. And no one will ever question you or think you can’t have a conversation.
A more sincere closer:
If you’ve chatted enough and just want to end the conversation gracefully, try some of these:
“Thanks so much for chatting with me; I’m going to grab (a drink, my lunch, some water)”
“It was nice talking with you. I need to say hello to a few more people. Thanks again.”
“It looks like my (spouse, friend, coworker) wants to leave soon. Would you like to exchange contact info before I go?”
There are many resources available on this topic. For further reading, I suggest Gretchen Rubin and Kyle Kellams. Let me know how your next attempt at small talk goes for you!