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Culture

How to Master Small Talk and Conversations in English

"How are you?" - In everyday life, whether it’s in the supermarket, at the office, or just out and about, you’ve heard this greeting from native English speakers many times.

This is a simple question and you could start explaining that you’re feeling great after having been to the gym or that you’re not feeling the best because you caught a cold. This sort of reply would successfully overcome the hurdle of starting a conversation by laying down the foundation for interesting small talk.

Or was the question not meant so literally? Does "how are you?" not require a full conversation?

This supposedly easy-to-navigate conversation highlights intercultural differences and the importance of being familiar with everyday English idioms. This way, you can avoid getting stuck and can learn to navigate small talk in English calmly and safely.

English-speaking countries place a lot more value on small talk than any other country, especially in everyday life.

We will explain what you should pay attention to in English conversations and help you to master small talk in English with an overview of useful terms and idioms.

Contents:

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Understand cultural differences with English small talk

If you start a conversation with a native English speaker, you will quickly find that English small talk is very different from maybe what you’re used to. The small talk begins in the initial greeting which is intended as a polite and frivolous pleasantry. The answer is expected to be nothing more than a simple “I'm fine, thanks.” or a “Good, how are you?”. In other cultures, these superfluous questions might not be a standard and would otherwise be responded by giving an honest answer.

The context or formality of the situation in which the small talk is taking place is generally insignificant. Addressing your counterpart in an informal manner is a standard—whether it’s speaking with the cashier in the supermarket or meeting your new boss in the office for the first time.

However, that doesn't mean that you should converse as though you have been best friends for years. It is important to always stay friendly, polite, and avoid any controversial topics.

Politeness to a native English speaker could vary significantly from other cultures’ ways of communication.

You have set a specific goal in your head—why beat around the bush when you can get to the point quickly? With your English-speaking counterpart, however, it’s not well received if you simply omit the small talk and get straight to the point.

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Typical small talk situations

Small talk is not often left out of any conversation in English-speaking countries. In that case, should you always be thinking of small talk topics, even if you’re just asking the supermarket cashier for a bag?

Of course, you’re not expected to have a chat about the weather in every single situation. Let us explain how best to manage English small talk in typical situations.

In passing

When you enter a shop, stand at the checkout in the supermarket, or meet a colleague walking by in the office, small talk is limited to a few brief greetings:

In passing
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If you know the person a little better (such as your colleagues), it's nice to add their first name to the greeting.

In the elevator

Sometimes situations arise in which a short greeting is not enough. If the elevator takes a little longer, for example, you shouldn't let uncomfortable silence arise. In English-speaking countries, it’s generally considered unfriendly to remain silent. You can, therefore, ask a few friendly questions, such as:

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At a meeting

At a business meeting, small talk in English becomes a little more detailed, after all, you do spend more time with your business partners.

If you meet your colleague for the first time, like in most countries, it’s common to greet each other with a short handshake and introduce each other. Then a few general questions can follow to help loosen up the atmosphere:

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At a party or event

Have you been invited to a party or business event? In the English-speaking world, this is seen as the perfect opportunity to network and make new contacts.

Whether you’re at the buffet, the bar, or a table, it’s completely normal to approach a stranger, introduce yourself, have some small talk, and then look for new conversation partners shortly afterward.

Perhaps this seems a little superficial and intrusive, but for an English native speaker, it’s perceived as quite the opposite—sociable and polite.

The first step is the most difficult—finding a way to start the conversation. The best thing to do is to ask an open-ended question which helps to avoid short “Yes.” or “No.” answers. And since you are at the same event, you automatically have a few things in common that you can use to break the ice:

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After a few questions, you can end the encounter with “It was very nice to meet you, Karen!” Say goodbye and look around for a new conversation partner.

On the phone

Just because the person isn’t in front of you doesn't mean that you can’t engage in some small talk. During a phone call, you should briefly introduce yourself, not forgetting to ask “How are you?” and finally adding a few nice sentences before you start talking about the real reason why you called. A conversation on the phone could look something like this:

Greeting and small talk

On the phone: Greeting
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Purpose of the call

On the phone: Purpose of call
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Goodbye

On the phone: Goodbye
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Avoid the pitfalls

As relaxed as English small talk may seem, there are some topics that are off-limits. These include religion, politics, and personal issues. After all, you want to create a positive atmosphere and avoid creating an awkward and unpleasant situation.

Perhaps then it’s better not to hit your British partner with a question about Brexit. This is one that could trigger a heated discussion and one that is best left out of the conversation altogether. Britons are generally positive about small talk and value relaxed but polite conversations.

However, one topic that is never off-limits to talk about is the weather. If it’s gray and rainy again outside, then the British like to complain about it. If it’s glorious and sunny out, then the British like to talk about it. Talking about the weather may sound like a cliché and a major British stereotype, however, this one is very much true. So if you’re ever stuck on how to start a conversation, a comment on the weather is always a safe and reliable option.

Sticking to harmless, lighthearted topics for small talk is definitely playing it safe in English-speaking countries. In addition to the weather, topics such as sports, vacation or hobbies are also a safe bet. With this, you can’t step on anyone's toes and if you’re being friendly and showing interest in the person you’re speaking with, you are guaranteed to master small talk in every situation!

Practice makes perfect!

Now that you know everything there is to know about English small talk, it’s time to put that knowledge into practice so that you are well prepared for your first English conversation. There are a few different possibilities here.

If you prefer to learn with a teacher and practice English small talk in a classroom, then a conversation course would be right for you. Different situations are practiced in a group setting, so you not only learn from your own mistakes, but also from those of other English learners.

Would you like regular personal feedback and have lessons that are tailored specifically to you? Then private lessons or tutoring will get you there faster.

If you are about to have a phone call in English, you can prepare a cheat sheet and read individual sentences from it. Your conversation partner won’t notice and it will save you from stressing out if you suddenly forget something.

Expressions and phrases for English small talk

Now that you’re ready to start preparing for your next small talk encounter in English, we have put together a PDF document with a few examples of English idioms and phrases. Download it here, practice it regularly and have it on hand to skim over before an important conversation.

Conversation starter
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The journey
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The weather
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Hobbies
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Vacation
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Closing the conversation
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On the phone
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Tandem is a great resource for you to practice your small talk with native English speakers. Find like-minded language partners around the world and start chatting via text, audio message, and video call.

Would you prefer to meet your language partner in person? Not only can you search for suitable language exchange partners in your area on Tandem, but also in the city of your next adventure. Register on Tandem for free, choose the language(s) you’re learning and you're good to go!

With our tips and recommendations, you are more than prepared for any English conversation. So the next time you’re standing with someone in an awkward silence, you know what to do!

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