Small talk is one of the most sought-after skills by many language learners, but also one of the hardest things to master in a foreign language.
But what is it? Small talk, or “shooting the breeze” as it is sometimes idiomatically known, means to make polite conversation with people about unimportant or inconsequential topics. It might be a chat about the weather with your neighbour over the garden fence or it might be a short discussion about where you’re headed on your holidays with your hairdresser. These types of conversations often don’t have a “hard purpose.” For instance, your neighbour and your hairdresser are not going to act on the information you give them, so they serve a different purpose entirely.
Small talk creates social bonds between people. It shows the other person that you are interested in what they are saying and helps to define the relationship between the participants. It can also help to put people at ease in awkward social situations when we don’t know people very well. This is why small talk at a dinner party with strangers, or even in a lift with your boss, is so common.
So, why is it so hard for a language learner to master this?
In short, small talk can be about an almost infinite list of topics. We already mentioned holidays and the weather (two very common subjects), but it could equally be about your studies, your family or that TV show last night. Because of its diversity, it can require a decent level of language ability to be able to engage in the conversation in a meaningful way.
Thankfully, there are shortcuts we can learn.
This article is going to look at some language strategies for helping us sound more natural when we make small talk. It will show you words and phrases that can be used when chatting about pretty much any topic. We will divide this language into five sections for you to learn and practice, so that you’re never stuck for something to say.
An important aspect of small talk is showing that we are listening to the speaker. Without using these words, we sometimes sound uninterested, or even bored. These words are vital for indicating to the speaker that we want them to continue and that we are paying attention. Let’s take a look at some common ones:
- Yeah. Right. Uh-huh. Mhm. Sure. Yes.
These types of questions are made using an auxiliary verb and a subject in order to “echo” what the person is saying. Again, they indicate that we are following what the other person is saying and that we are interested. We create them by using a typical yes/no question structure, which mirrors the statement made by the speaker.
For example, “I just got offered a new job” would result in the echo question “Did you?” However, we don’t expect an answer to this question. It is merely made to show interest. Let’s look at a few more typical examples:
- Did they? Was he? Will she? Does it? Has it? Were they?
Echoing individual words
This is another way we can echo what the speaker is saying. Instead of asking a short yes or no question, we repeat a single word that we have heard them say with rising intonation (like a question). We always pick a word that was important or surprising in what the person was saying.
For example, “They charged me £250!” could result in the echo word “£250?” Here are a few more typical echo words:
- Italy? A new job? Two thousand pounds? Ninety seconds? Vegetarian?
We should all be familiar with asking “wh- questions” (which include questions made with how). Unlike echo questions above, we actually expect an answer here. Their purpose is to move the conversation forward by seeking to find out more information. Of course, we are reacting to what the person is saying so the wh- questions need to be contextually appropriate. Let’s look at some examples:
- When does he start? Where did you get it? What did you say? When is he going?
Personal responses are, perhaps, the most difficult thing to get right for a language learner. These are the phrases that we use to react to the information we are receiving and to express various emotions. These emotions could be surprise or shock, pleasure or agreement, or any other appropriate response to what we’re being told. There are thousands of ways of responding to the information we receive, but we’re going to focus on some of the most common ones here. Some words and phrases are repeated in different categories as the tone we would use indicates the exact emotion that we are expressing.
- No way! You’re kidding! Wow! Really?
- Sure. Right. Of course. Yeah, definitely. Mhm.
- That’s great! Fantastic! Really? Wow!
- Oh no! What a shame! How sad! What a pity!
- What! No way! You’re kidding! Really?
Examples of small talk
So, we’ve looked at some of the ways we can respond to what a speaker is saying. Now we’re going to learn how it works in practice. Below are typical examples of small talk. Each response has been numbered. Read through the conversations and decide which of the five techniques (showing interest, echoing questions, echoing words, wh- questions or personal responses) has been used in each reply.
Paul is getting his hair cut by a new barber named Sam. He has never met this barber before and, after introducing themselves, they begin to make small talk.
Sam: So, going anywhere nice this year?
Paul: Actually, I’ve just booked a holiday in the Caribbean.
Sam: (1) The Caribbean? (2) Wow! (3) Who are you going with?
Paul: Just my wife. Although, she has family over there so we’ll spend some time with them. They live in Antigua.
Sam: (4) Do they? (5) Great!
Paul: (6) Yeah, I can’t wait. I could do with some sun after all this bad weather we’ve been having.
Sam: (7) Of course. (8) How long are you going for?
Paul: Two weeks in total. And if we like it out there, we’re thinking of emigrating.
Sam: (9) Really? (10) Fantastic! (11) What would you do for work in the Caribbean?
Paul: I’m a trained chef and my wife’s family run a restaurant. They’ve already offered me a job if I want it.
Sam: (12) Have they?
Next, take a look at this conversation. Mia has just started at a new job. At lunch she bumps into her boss (Hassan) while waiting in line in the canteen and they begin to make small talk.
Hassan: Hi Mia! How’s it going?
Mia: Yeah, really well thanks.
Hassan: (1) Fantastic! (2) How are you settling into the new job?
Mia: Really well, I hope! Everyone’s been really helpful so far.
Hassan: (3) Great! Did you say you’d just moved into the area?
Mia: Yes, that’s right. I only finished unpacking all my boxes this past weekend. I’ve been living up north for the past two years.
Hassan: (4) Up north?
Mia: (5) Mhm. Just outside Nottingham. In fact, I was completing a Masters at Nottingham University.
Hassan: (6) Were you? My son actually attends Nottingham University.
Mia: (7) Really? What a coincidence! (8) What’s he studying there?
Hassan: Ancient history. He wants to be an archeologist.
Mia: (9) An archeologist? (10) Fantastic! I’ve always been quite interested in history myself.
Hassan: (11) Have you? Did you watch that programme last night about the discovery of Richard the Third’s remains in Leicester?
Mia: No, I missed it. (12) Was it any good?