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How to make small talk, for English learners

Updated: Oct 19, 2022



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In most English-speaking cultures, people make "small talk" in certain situations. Small talk is friendly, polite conversation that "breaks the ice" or fills an awkward silence between people. We often make small talk at parties and networking events, when we meet new people, or before we introduce a more serious topic.


Despite the name, small talk is a big part of life in English-speaking environments, and it has an important function in our social lives. Small talk helps us find common interests, build trust, and strengthen our relationships with others.


Even though you may feel uncomfortable speaking English, it can be considered rude if you say nothing. Anxiety about small talk is normal, even for people who grew up speaking English. And remember, it is often better to make a few mistakes in English than to say nothing at all!


This guide will help you start conversations with people you don’t know, keep the conversation going after the first few exchanges, and end the conversation smoothly when the time comes.


How to Make Small Talk


Start the conversation. Starting a conversation is often the hardest part of small talk. Communications expert Dr. Carol Fleming offers this three-part process to kick off a conversation: Anchor, Reveal, Extend (ARE).


1. Anchor. A comment that makes a connection about something you’re both seeing or experiencing.


“The music tonight is fantastic.”

“This weather is perfect.”


2. Reveal. Share something about yourself that is related to the anchor you just threw out.


“There is a much bigger crowd than at the last event.”

“I’ve been waiting for a nice day to go hiking.”


3. Extend. Ask open-ended questions (questions that require an answer that’s more than “yes” or “no”).


“Have you been to any other openings? What did you think?”

“What are your plans for the nice weather?”


Keep building the conversation. To turn this short exchange into a longer conversation, offer follow-up comments and questions that continue to build the conversation.


These useful phrases can help you respond to a comment or smoothly move between topics:


Let me think…

Anyway …

By the way, I wanted to ask you …

I know what you mean.

Really? I didn't know that!


If you’re nervous about your language skills, try to ask questions to get the other person talking. But be sure to share some things about yourself, too, so the conversation doesn’t feel like an interview.

Exit the conversation. A long pause. The other person looks away or checks their phone. You’ve talked about three or four different topics and haven’t made a connection. These are signs that it’s time to end the conversation. Here are three ways to close the conversation smoothly.


1. Have an “out.” Give an excuse or a reason to leave the conversation. You can prepare your reason in advance and use it when the time is right.


“I’m going to grab [some food, a drink]. Great to [meet you, catch up].”

“Excuse me, I’m going to use the restroom. Nice talking to you!”

“I’m going to say hello to a few other people, but I’ll see you [around, at the next event…]”


2. “Let them go”. Turn the responsibility of ending the conversation over to the other person. This shows that you respect their time.


“I’ll let you go, but it was nice to chat.”

“Well, I’ll let you mingle. Nice talking to you.”

“I don’t want to take all your time—I’m going to [check out the snacks, say hello to someone, take a walk around, etc.]”


3. Be direct. You don’t always need to give a reason to end the conversation. Just smile and thank the other person for talking with you.


“It was great talking! I’ll see you around.”

“I really enjoyed catching up. I hope you have a nice rest of your night.”

“I’m going to step away for a moment, but it was great talking with you.”



 

Making small talk in English is a specific skill. Like any skill, you get better with practice. Look for opportunities to chat in English, in person or online. Pretend that you are speaking with a friend, not a stranger. This will help you relax and make you seem warmer and friendly—and easier for the other person to talk to. Go easy on yourself. We are often much more focused and critical of ourselves than other people are. If you make a mistake or say something strange, the other person likely won’t focus on it afterwards.


Want a relaxed but challenging environment to practice your English small talk skills? Book a free trial lesson with me to talk about what’s holding you back and to make a plan to improve.



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