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Making Small Talk

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Friends in a pub
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Making Small Talk

The ability to make 'small talk' is highly valued. In fact, many English students are more interested in making effective small talk than knowing correct grammar structures - and rightly so! Small talk gets friendships started and 'breaks the ice' before important business meetings and other events.

What is small talk?

Small talk is pleasant conversation about common interests.

Why is small talk difficult for some English learners?

First of all, making small talk is not difficult only for English learners, but also for many native speakers of English. However, small talk can be especially difficult for some learners because making small talk means talking about almost anything - and that means having a wide vocabulary that can cover most topics. Most English learners have excellent vocabulary in specific areas, but may have difficulties discussing topics they are unfamiliar with because of a lack of appropriate vocabulary.

This lack of vocabulary leads to some students 'blocking'. They slow down or stop speaking completely because of a lack of self-confidence.

How to Improve Small Talk Skills

Now that we understand the problem, the next step is to improve the situation. Here are some tips to improve small talk skills. Of course, making effective small talk means lots of practice, but keeping these tips in mind should improve overall conversational skills.

  • Do some research

    Spend time on the Internet, reading magazines, or watching TV specials about the type of people you are going to meet. For example: If you are taking a class with students from other countries, take time after the first few days of class to do some research. They will appreciate your interest and your conversations will be much more interesting.

  • Stay away from religion/strong political beliefs

    While you may believe in something very strongly, beginning conversations and making small talk about your own personal convictions may abruptly end the conversation. Keep it light, don't try to convince the other person that you have the 'correct' information about a higher being, political system or other belief system.

  • Use the Internet to gain specific vocabulary

    This is related to doing research about other people. If you have a business meeting, or are meeting people who share a common interest (a basketball team, a tour group interested in art, etc.), take advantage of the Internet to learn specific vocabulary. Almost all businesses and interest groups have glossaries on the Internet explaining the most important jargon related to their business or activity.

  • Ask yourself about your culture

    Take time to make a list of common interests that are discussed when making small talk in your own culture. You can do this in your own language, but check to make sure that you have the English vocabulary to make small talk about those subjects.

  • Find common interests

    Once you have a subject that interests both of you, keep to it! You can do this in a number of ways: talking about travel, talking about the school or friend you have in common, talking about the differences between your culture and the new culture (just be careful to make comparisons and not judgments, i.e., The food in our country is better than the food here in England").

  • Listen

    This is very important. Don't get so worried about being able to communicate that you don't listen. Listening carefully will help you understand and encourage those speaking to you. You might be nervous, but letting others state their opinions will improve the quality of the discussion - and give you time to think of an answer!

The next page provides a list of appropriate and inappropriate subjects for small talk. If you are a teacher, here is a lesson plan focusing on building small talk skills.

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