small talk

Small talk at work: an English learner’s guide

Lesson by Kerin.

Post updated Mar 2022

Learn 3 ways to make small talk work for you at work

Small talk in English;

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Picture this: you’re standing at the coffee machine and a colleague comes over. You don’t know him very well. You both say hello and then you can’t think of much to say. You mumble* something about the weather (if you are British this is a sure thing. We love to talk about the weather) and then… nothing. Your mind goes blank* and you stand awkwardly looking at the coffee, wondering why it is taking so long to make…

Or picture this: you’ve joined a meeting online and there are one or two colleagues already there. You’re waiting for others to join and you have to pass the time. But the same thing happens … you can’t think of anything interesting to say and there is awkward silence….

In these situations we need small talk.

to mumble* = verb: say something indistinctly and quietly, making it difficult for others to hear.

mind goes blank* = expression: If your mind goes blank, you are suddenly unable to think of anything appropriate to say, for example in reply to a question. 

What is small talk?

Small talk is basically casual conversation. It’s usually polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters. Many people say they hate small talk, because it can appear boring and meaningless, but if you can think of it in another way, you can stop dreading* it:

to dread* = verb: anticipate with great apprehension or fear

It’s better to think of small talk as an easy way to get to know a colleague, rather than something banal that you feel you have to do. Think of it as a method for creating and developing better relationships with the people that you see at work regularly. Master this skill and you can use it in other areas of your life too, get to know a neighbour, a person in your yoga class, or any new people in any social occasion. 

In short, think of small talk as the road to take to find out new things about people, to connect with them, develop potential working relationships and even friendships. And of course, it can be really enjoyable too.

How can you improve small talk?

Let’s start with these 3 easy tips.

1. Make conversation more interesting by using engaging questions

Okay, so what does this mean exactly? One way we can improve our conversation skills is by switching closed questions for engaging questions with the aim of encouraging the person in front of you to talk

Here is a closed question:

Me: “Do you like working at The Company?

You: “It’s alright.”

Conversation over.

Open–ended questions generate more interesting responses because they unlock more information from people.

Therefore don’t ask, “Do you …….?” (e.g Do you like your neighbourhood?)

Try “Why do you …. ?” (e.g Why do you like your neighbourhood?)

You’ll get a more interesting answers if you do! 

Study the infographic for some more examples

Small talk in English

Tip! 

Asking questions is also great if you an introvert. Check out this extract from Forbes

Introverts tend to feel uncomfortable in the spotlight. They are often reluctant to disclose too much about themselves, especially to new people. So how can you start conversations and keep them flowing? The answer is simple – ask questions. By allowing the other person to take center stage initially, you can build your comfort level and test the waters before sharing your own thoughts.

Listen & Read

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2. Answer questions with a bit of omph!

Don’t just ask questions – your colleague will feel like they’re being interviewed. Be prepared to share a little about yourself. Remember, it’s about making connections – it’s a two-way street. 

Just as you don’t want to ask closed questions, you don’t want to give closed answers either. 

And, just because you have practised open questions instead of closed questions, it doesn’t mean your colleague has. So here is how to be more interesting when you reply to questions:

QUESTION: How are you? SHORT REPLY: Fine thanks!

TRY THIS INSTEAD: Good, thanks. I’m getting ready for my trip to Berlin next weekend. It will be my first time in Germany, so I’m pretty excited about it!

QUESTION: What did you do this weekend? SHORT REPLY: Not much. I went to Ikea.

TRY THIS INSTEAD: I had a trip to Ikea this weekend. I’ve got to replace my kitchen so i thought I’d check out what they have to offer. But never again on a Saturday!

3. Ask for advice or ask for an opinion to boost your small talk

Most of us love to give our opinion about stuff and it can be a really good conversation starter. Of course, you have to pick your topic wisely: best not to ask where one stands on politics or social issues (not until you’ve become friends!) Yet, asking for advice or opinions on other topics can be a really successful way to get the conversation going.

Here are some examples:

  • I’d love to find out where the best places to get a good coffee around here. Where’s the best place to get a coffee near the office?
  • (NOT: Is there a bar near here?)
  • I haven’t been out for a pizza in ages. What’s your favourite place to get a pizza at the weekend?
  • (NOT:  Do you like pizza?)
  • So Pete mentioned that you’re from Manchester originally. Would you recommend Manchester as a good place to go for a long weekend? 
  • (NOT: Is Manchester a nice city?) 

Conversation topics for small talk

Have a look at the infographic below for conversation topic ideas and check out this post How to make conversation in English at parties

small talk conversation questions

To sum up

There you have it. 3 simple ways to improve small talk at work, making conversations easier and more engaging. 

  • Ask engaging questions instead of closed questions
  • Answer questions with interesting answers instead of one-word answers
  • Ask people for advice, recommendations and opinions
English Digital Academy

Activate your English

Your turn! 

Task 1: Think of 2-3 small talk questions you can ask a colleague. Write your questions in the comments below.

Task 2: Answer questions left by other people in the comments to practise how to answer small talk questions too.

ps. If you found this lesson useful, please share with others who are struggling with this kind of situation in English. 

Thanks!

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