1. What is Small Talk?
O: How’s life?
L: Pretty good. You?
O: Not bad. What’ve you been up to recently?
L: Oh, not much. I’ve been busy at work. What about you? What’s new?
O: Same, though I’m going away next month. Really looking forward to it!
In the dialogue, you saw some basic small talk. Think about two questions: what is small talk? Why is small talk important?
Small talk means that you make a simple conversation. The topic isn’t important. When you make small talk, you don’t give many details. You might ask questions like ‘How’s life?’, ‘What have you been up to recently?’ or ‘What’s new with you?’, but you don’t expect a detailed answer. Many people dislike small talk, or complain about it. They say that small talk is boring, or that it’s pointless. Small talk might be boring, but it’s not supposed to be interesting. That’s not its function. Small talk definitely *isn’t* pointless.
So, what’s it for? Small talk is a way to show friendliness and interest. What’s more, small talk shows that you and the person you’re talking to are on the same social level. Think about it: managers don’t usually make much small talk with their subordinates. Teachers in schools don’t make a lot of small talk with their pupils. Police officers don’t make small talk with criminals they arrest. Why not? It’s about hierarchy. Managers are ‘above’ their subordinates in the office hierarchy. It’s the same for teachers and schoolchildren, or police officers and criminals; they’re on different social levels. If you meet a new colleague, or a new client, or you start a new class and you want to make friends, making small talk sends a social signal. It says, “We’re on the same level, so we can be friendly with each other.”
Plus, small talk is a way to avoid silence in conversation, which makes many people uncomfortable. So, what should you remember from this? When you make small talk, don’t worry about the topic and don’t worry about being interesting. That’s not the point of small talk. Remember the three questions you saw before. Can you remember them?
- How’s life?
- What have you been up to recently?
- What’s new with you?
These are useful for making small talk. Learn them and use them! Next, let’s look at some common small talk topics.
2. Small Talk Topics: Where Are You From?
Lori: Are you from around here?
Oli: No, I grew up here, but I was born in Romania.
L: Really? Are you from Bucharest?
O: No, from Timișoara, in the west.
L: I have to admit I haven’t heard of it!
O: That’s OK, most people haven’t. It’s a big city in Romania, but it’s not so well-known in other countries.
L: What’s it like?
O: It’s pretty, but there are more opportunities here. I’m planning to move back there in a few years. What about you? Are you local?
L: Kind of. I was born here, but when I was five my parents moved to Mexico, and I grew up there. I moved back here after I graduated, but I haven’t spent that much time here.
O: Wow, Mexico! Do you go back often?
L: Yeah, once or twice a year. It’s quite far, but I still have some family and a lot of friends there.
A common small talk topic is your hometown and the place you live, or the places you have lived. To start a conversation, you could ask:
- Where are you from?
- Are you from around here?
- Are you local?
If someone asked you these questions, how would you answer? You could say:
- Yes, I was born here and I’ve lived here all my life.
- I was born in …, but I’ve been living here for a while now.
- I’m originally from …
When you find out where someone is from, you can ask a follow-up question. For example: ‘What’s your hometown like?’ With this question, it’s more natural to use the name of the city, so say ‘What’s Hangzhou like?’ ‘What’s Quito like?’ and so on. If the person you’re talking to is from another city or country, you could ask ‘Do you go back often?’ Remember: with small talk, keep your answers short. Give some information, but don’t go into a lot of detail. Also, try to find a balance between asking questions and giving information about yourself.
Next, what other common small talk topics can you think of? Let’s look at another!
3. Small Talk Topics: Free Time and Hobbies
Oli: Any weekend plans?
Lori: Not much, I’m planning to play tennis on Saturday, then maybe go out for dinner with some friends. You?
O: I’m having a quiet weekend.
L: That’s nice sometimes.
O: Actually, I prefer to get outdoors. I do a lot of wild swimming, but it’s too cold at the moment, so I’m going to be boring and catch up on some housework.
L: Wild swimming? You mean, swimming in lakes and rivers and so on?
O: Yeah, long distance outdoor swimming.
L: How did you get into that?
O: I used to be in a swimming club, and one of my friends from there took me to a lake near here where you can swim. I started with short distances, and now I’m training for a 10k.
L: Ten kilometres? That’s crazy!
O: It’s like anything. If you work towards it slowly, it’s quite possible. Have you ever tried it?
L: No, I’m not big on swimming. I’ve done some long-distance running, which I guess is similar in a way.
O: I wouldn’t know. I hate running!
Talking about free time, hobbies and plans for your days off is a common small talk topic. Look at three questions you heard in the dialogue. Can you remember the missing words?
- ________ weekend plans?
- How did you get ________ that?
- Have you ever ________ it?
Do you remember?
- Any weekend plans?
- How did you get into that?
- Have you ever tried it?
Small talk is generally informal, so it’s usual to ask short questions, like ‘Any weekend plans?’ rather than full questions, like ‘Do you have any plans for the weekend?’ If someone has an interesting or unusual hobby, you could ask ‘How did you get into that?’ Could you explain what this means? This question is asking: how did you become interested in this? How did you start? You might answer with something like:
- I’ve been doing it for years.
- I got into it when I was a student.
- A friend took me one time, and I’ve been hooked ever since!
Finally, asking ‘have you ever tried it?’ is a good way to continue the conversation. If the other person says ‘yes’, you have more to talk about! Let’s see one more common small talk topic.
4. Small Talk Topics: Family and Kids
Lori: How was your weekend?
Oli: It was nice. My brother and his family came to stay.
L: Oh yeah? So you have nephews and nieces?
O: Yes, actually, I have ten. I’m from a big family.
L: Wow! I had no idea. How many of you are there?
O: Four. Four boys; I’m the third.
L: You don’t have kids, right?
O: No, not yet. You have one, or two?
L: Just one. We’d like to have a second, but our apartment’s so tiny it’s difficult to think about right now.
O: What about the rest of your family? Do you have any brothers or sisters?
L: I have one brother and one sister, and one niece. Nothing like your family. It must be chaotic when you all get together.
O: Yeah, it is… It’s fun, though!
First of all, be careful with asking people about their families if you’re in another country or another culture. You don’t want to be oversensitive, but in different cultures some questions might sound too personal. For example, asking ‘Are you married?’ or ‘Do you have children?’ to someone you just met might be uncomfortable. It’s difficult to say, because so much depends on context. Just think about it and remember that in different cultures and countries people might have different expectations!
Another tip: it’s good to wait for the other person to mention their family before you ask questions about it. For example, in the dialogue, Oli mentioned his brother, and I then asked him questions about the rest of his family. Anyhow, let’s see some useful small talk questions to ask about someone’s family. In the dialogue, you heard:
- You have nephews and nieces?
- How many of you are there?
- You don’t have kids, right?
- What about the rest of your family?
Do you know how you would answer these? In small talk, keeping the conversation going is the most important thing. It’s more important than what you talk about, or what information you get from the other person. So, you might ask things which aren’t genuine questions. Actually, of these four questions, only one is a real request for information. Do you know which one?
The second is a real question, where you’re asking for information. What about the others? The first and third are questions to check information. You use these when you think you know the answer already, and you’re asking for confirmation. You ask these questions to keep the conversation moving, not because you need information.
The fourth question signals a small change of topic. In the dialogue, I used this question to switch from asking about Lori’s immediate family to talking about her family more generally. In fact, in the dialogue, this question was immediately followed by a second question: ‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’ Now, let’s talk about one more thing.
5. Finding Things in Common
Oli: Are you a football fan?
Lori: Not really. I do like watching basketball, though.
O: Really? I love basketball, too! Do you go to many games, or just watch on TV?
L: I go to, I guess, four or five games a season. You?
O: About the same. Did you see it last week? That was a crazy result!
L: Yeah, I know, right? Great game, though. I couldn’t sleep afterwards, I was so hyped up.
O: Do you think they have a chance of winning?
L: I’m not sure. I don’t want to get my hopes up.
O: I know what you mean. Hey, do you want to watch the game together this Saturday? I have a couple of friends coming over. You could join us, and we’ll have beers and snacks.
L: Oh, yeah, thanks! That sounds great.
You heard before that small talk doesn’t need to be interesting, and the most important thing is to keep the conversation going. That’s true, but what’s the end goal? You can’t make small talk forever. In the end, you need to develop a deeper conversation. That doesn’t mean you need to get into serious topics; when we say ‘deeper conversation’ we mean a conversation you’re both interested in, and where you really want to hear what the other person has to say. The best way to do this is to find things in common or shared interests. To do this, balance asking questions and giving information about yourself, and try to avoid very short answers. For example, in the dialogue, we were talking about sports. I Lori asked if I was a football fan. I said that I wasn’t. Then, I added that I like a different sport: basketball. This gave us something new to talk about, and we found something we have in common. If you just answer ‘not really’, then it’s difficult to move the conversation forwards.
Once you find something you’re both interested in, everything gets easier. It’s not difficult to talk about something you really enjoy, right? Finally, a question. Expectations and etiquette around small talk can be very different in different parts of the world. Compare what you’ve heard in this lesson to how things are in your country and your culture.
Do you have a similar approach to small talk, or are there differences? Let us know your thoughts in the comments on the Oxford Online English YouTube channel, and share your ideas with English learners from all over the world!
Thanks for watching!