At some point in your life, you will have to make small talk in English with someone you do not know well.
It will feel strange and awkward and as English is your second language, you will probably feel you are running out of things to say. This is natural but you must learn how to do it. It will make you more confident in speaking English and it will help you improve your English skills of speaking and listening. It will also improve your social skills too.
There are many sources online that say they can ‘teach’ you how to make small talk in English with someone. While it may be true they can provide you with some great phrases to use when making small talk, it is a bit of a stretch to say they can help you learn the art of making small talk.
I’m afraid all of that learning has to come from you.
Make an effort to learn how to make small talk by yourself through experience. Through trial and error, you will gain more confidence, learn what works and what doesn’t, and learn to make small talk in English in a variety of topics familiar to you and easy to talk about.
Read on and I will give you some great tips — but the rest is up to you…
Why make small talk at all?
Have you ever been waiting for the bus and it is just you and another person by the bus stop? Or you’re in line in a coffee shop and the customer in front of you looks back and gives you a small smile?
You know that feeling?
It’s an awkward moment that there is too much silence. You have a strong thought you should say something, anything at all, but you don’t know what.
Maybe you are at a party and you are alone. The host introduces you to another guest, also alone, but now you’re racking your mind trying to think of something to talk about.
The reason we make small talk is to fill this uncomfortable silence in the air. To fill the void and just chat about unimportant, easy topics.
It breaks the ice between people and we get to know each other better. And who knows — you might find that you have much more in common and you can become good friends.
A good reason for you to make small talk in English is that you can practice your English almost anywhere. And what is wrong with that?
The problems English learners have in making small talk
For anyone who is shy, making small talk is definitely a challenge.
But if English is your second language, then it becomes an even bigger challenge. Add to that, you may be from a country where the people are often shy and quiet — Japan, Korea or China — and it becomes a huge challenge.
The major hurdles in making small talk for any person who speaks English as a second language could be:
Not knowing what to say
Running out of things to say
Being too nervous — or scared witless!
Unable to read the cues when to talk and when not to talk in another culture
All of these things add up and present great problems for the English learner. It then becomes much easier to not say anything at all. But you are losing out on taking this easy option.
You need to practice making small talk as much as you can. In class, with your English teacher and with your classmates.
But there will come that time when you will have to dive in and talk to someone in English and make small talk.
Let’s find out the first steps to take.
When do we make small talk?
Have you ever been in an elevator and you see a neighbour or someone you work with next to you?
Do you strike up a conversation with this person? Just say hello even and tell them to have a good day?
This is the perfect time to make small talk with someone. When you meet someone you know a little for the first time in any given day. They may not be a good friend, you don’t have their phone number and you don’t even know their name. But you know them enough to recognise them.
So, you say: Hello. How are you today?
And when they get out the elevator, you say: See you, have a good day.
That was simple, right?
Anytime you are waiting in line, this is a good moment to make small talk in English with someone.
For example, you might be waiting in line in the coffee shop. There’s only the barista, you, and the customer in front. If the customer turns and smiles that is a good sign to make small talk.
What can you say?
Often a simple hello is enough. Once people say hello they then feel the need to have a small conversation about something. It could be about the weather, that you are glad because it’s Friday, and the weekend is coming. Or that the barista has just dropped a cup.
It need not be anything serious or heavy.
The trick is to see the right opening cue to talk to someone. That might be a half-smile, a glance in your direction or a sigh or a certain body gesture.
We need to be aware of these cues. More on this later.
Who do we make small talk with? And who not?
We make small talk with people we barely know — could be the guy in the office we pass in the corridor or the young woman in the convenience store we see most days.
It could be any person we are waiting in line with. But be careful with that. They might be in a hurry or just not wish to talk to anyone. Did they give you a quick glance in your direction? Acknowledge you in some way? Maybe they are open to conversation.
And if you are a man, you have to be very careful about making small talk with a woman on her own. She may wish to talk to you, maybe not.
We can make small talk with the postman, the delivery guy, any of our neighbours, the security guard in front of our office, the traffic warden we always see in the same spot on the street…
Effectively we can make small talk with anyone we see and that we know a little.
What do we make small talk in English about?
This is the key thing.
Please remember that we always talk about safe topics. This means anything that people mostly feel comfortable to talk about.
This is why people often talk about the weather — it is easy to talk about and it is a safe and harmless topic to discuss.
How to do it?
It could be something like: How about this weather?
We say this if there has been an extended period of hot or cold weather. Or if it has been raining for a few days. Some kind of unusual weather.
Or if it’s a nice day, you could say What a beautiful day.
And that is all you need to say to get someone to make small talk with you.
The news is another reasonably safe subject to make small talk with someone. It’s a safe subject you can talk about with someone at work.
But avoid serious political news. This is something to be avoided when making small talk with someone as it is too sensitive.
The kind of news that is easy to talk about is sports news or entertainment news. But make sure that the other person is interested in this kind of news. It is no use to talking to a colleague about some news in football if the other person is not a sports fan.
If there is a new member of staff in your office, you can talk about that. But make sure the conversation is always positive. Never indulge in office gossip — it is not a healthy subject to talk about.
And never make small talk about someone’s salary. This is a very sensitive subject in some cultures.
Don’t discuss anyone’s family or their married life — unless they bring the subject up. If someone shows you a picture of their newborn baby, that is the perfect time to make small talk with them about their family. The person is opening up to you and it is polite to respond in kind.
Simple compliments about the baby such as
What a beautiful baby
Such a handsome chap (assuming you know it’s a boy)
Is mother doing well?
These kinds of comments are polite and sociable. The person you are talking to would appreciate your comments — as long as they are all positive and polite.
Maybe you see someone you know and they have changed their hairstyle. It is good to make a compliment about this. Especially a woman to another woman. Men rarely compliment each other’s appearance.
But never make any comment about someone’s body — this should be avoided.
Don’t talk about private things — this is not polite.
And avoid politics and religion.
Really, it comes down to common sense what you make small talk about. Just be sensible and be aware of not trying to offend the other person and you can’t go wrong.
Examples of making small talk in English
The problem for English learners and making small talk is that you don’t know what to say or not to say. So you go to English textbooks to find out. And in these books, they have the most simplistic dialogues to give the students an example of what English speakers might say.
But usually, we never talk like that.
However, you have to start somewhere. It’s a good idea to learn key phrases and useful sentences — the kind of English you need to at least make a start.
Once you have some of these key phrases established in your mind, practice them either by yourself or even better with some other students.
Try to mix up as many different phrases as you can — it is pointless in learning the phrases and sentences as if they are a script.
Meeting someone for the first time
It fills many people with dread, meeting someone for the first time. We get tongue-tied and we get nervous as we try to think of things to say or interesting questions to ask.
Let’s look at a few scenarios that might happen when we meet someone for the first time and we have to make small talk.
Here are some examples of things you can say to introduce yourself:
Hello, nice to meet you. My name is…
Hi, welcome aboard. I’m…
Hello, it’s good to meet you. My name is…
You might then add some further information, such as what your job is, what department you work in (if at work) or where you are from.
Try these phrases:
I work in IT
I’m an engineer at XYZ
I’m in sales
I’m a teacher
I’m in the logistics department
I’m over at marketing
I’m from Russia
I come from Japan
If someone introduces you to another person for the first time, try to smile. You might feel nervous but smiling will help you feel less nervous.
Plus, if you smile it makes the other person feel friendlier towards you.
This is a difficult thing to do if you do not feel confident in your English ability but it will make the whole situation a thousand times better.
Talking about the weather
Making small talk about the weather is a universally accepted topic.
You can talk about the weather in almost any situation — at work, with your neighbour, with someone as you wait in line.
Here are some things you can say:
It’s a beautiful day
What a nice day
What an awful day
What about this weather?
What do you think about this weather?
I hear it’s going to rain later
Can you believe all this rain we’ve been having?
It looks like it might rain later
And that is all you really need to say about the weather. There is no need to talk at length about it as it is not a particularly interesting subject.
Talking about the news
This is also a universal subject you can make small talk about — providing you don’t talk about anything too political.
If there has been a recent global or local event, then you can mention it.
Try these phrases:
Did you see the news today?
Did you hear about that plane crash?
What do you think about the subway going on strike next week?
Do you follow the stock market? Did you hear about the XYZ stock falling?
I saw on the news that they are finally opening that new road in town…
When talking about the news it should just be in passing. You don’t need to go into much detail about things.
If talking about a disaster — a plane crash, a fire — always express sympathy!
And only bring the subject of the news up if something newsworthy has happened. If nothing has happened, then don’t talk about the news.
Talking about sport
For most men, this is another safe subject to talk about. But you have to be a fan yourself. It is a waste of time talking about the sport if you have no idea what people are talking about in the game.
And of course, many women are sports fans too. Don’t just assume that they are not because they are women. In most English-speaking countries women enjoy sport as much as men.
Here are some things you can say:
Did you catch the game last night?
Did you see the football over the weekend?
What about the Reds… Did you see that game?
I can’t believe the way Ascot let that goal in. That was terrible…
If you are a sports fan, making small talk will be easy once you start. Your passion for the game will help you talk about it at length so don’t worry.
Talking about entertainment
Most people like to talk about movies, TV shows, music, etc.
You can make small talk about this with people but test whether they are interested in the same entertainment as yourself.
It would be a waste of time talking about West Coast hip hop to the HR manager if she has no interest in it.
But try these kinds of lines:
Are you a Tom Cruise fan? Have you seen his new movie?
Did you see the Oscars last night?
I think Miley Cyrus has a new song out. Have you heard it?
Did you watch that new show with Ricky Gervais on TV? He’s hilarious…
Making small talk in English at work
You should not make small talk with everyone you see at work but in passing you can have a chat with someone in the corridor, in the lift as you go to the office or if you bump into someone on your way back from lunch.
These are some things you can say:
Thank God it’s Friday!
Things seem pretty quiet/busy these days…
How’s your day been?
Another great way of making small talk and getting to know someone better at work is to ask their advice about something.
For example, maybe you get talking to someone in marketing. You could ask them about something in marketing that is related to the work you are doing. If you ask politely, the other person will be flattered that you have asked them. And hopefully, they will give you some time to answer your questions.
You could start off by asking something like this:
I’m sorry to bother you, but I wonder if you could help me…
I know you are very busy but if you have a spare minute could you advise me on something?
Sorry to disturb you but could you help me with something?
Most people are extremely flattered to be asked to help someone — especially if it gives them the chance to show their expertise on something.
Give it a try.
Making small talk in English about general observations
At work, in our neighbourhood, in any place we see regularly, we can comment on general observations around us.
Could be one of the following:
I’m glad they finally fixed that light in the corridor
What do you think of the new furniture?
The place looks so bright with all these plants, don’t you think?
Or it could be about a person:
I like your hair. Did you get it done recently?
I really like your shoes, where did you get them?
Please remember that personal comments like this are best between women in certain cultures. Quite often men don’t like to comment on each other’s clothing or hairstyles.
Making small talk in English at a party or social event
This can fill an English learner with absolute fear.
You are at a party, everyone is drinking and having fun and all the guests seem to know each other. And you are left standing there by the wall on your own, too afraid to talk to anyone.
Then the host introduces you to another guest and you know you have to speak.
What to do?
You can try some of the following phrases:
Do you know many people here?
How do you know (host’s name)?
It’s a nice party
What do you do?
Once you ask about someone’s job then you may find that the other person will talk about that quite freely. This is your chance to ask more questions about their work and what is involved.
Always try to show curiosity without prying into sensitive areas like salary and you can’t go wrong.
Making small talk in English while outside — in the park, walking around, etc
Be very careful when making small talk outside. Especially if you are a man. You can’t just approach anyone and start a conversation with them!
Look for visual cues and then take a chance.
Try the following phrases:
It’s a nice day, don’t you think?
What a beautiful dog. What’s his name?
The flowers look great this time of year
Also, the usual greetings of hello, good morning, good afternoon apply, especially if you are in your own neighbourhood.
Another way to practice small talk is to ask directions to somewhere — maybe the bank or the post office.
Making small talk in English while waiting in line
Often when we are waiting in line, we have the opportunity to make small talk with someone.
You need to understand body language cues here. Usually, people just want to buy their coffee or whatever they are buying and get out of the store. They may not have time to chat with anyone.
But if you see someone glance over at you, then you can make some small talk.
Could be any of the following phrases:
This place looks pretty busy today
Looks like we’re never going to get served (if waiting a long time)
I think the server is working alone today (as above)
I shall have to come a little earlier next time
Just be aware of people’s body language. If they are willing to talk, then try. There are very few rude people in this world so you will probably find that most people are receptive to you talking to them.
Bad examples of small talk in English
I understand that it is very difficult to make small talk if English is your second language but I think it is a good idea to point out some bad examples of small talk that I have experienced.
If you are a man, it is probably not a good idea to make small talk with another man in the toilets. Unless you know each other very well. Generally, men feel awkward talking to another man in the toilet.
If you make eye contact, give the other guy a curt nod, wash your hands and leave.
Save the chatting for another time. Trust me on this one.
Equally, it is not a good idea to talk to another man about his cologne, his deodorant or any other references to his bathroom products. Again, men don’t talk about these things.
The man next to you might wear a very strong after-shave but it is best to say nothing at all rather than risk an insult.
Talking for too long about what someone had for lunch.
It’s fine to ask someone what they had for lunch but there’s no need to discuss it at great length. It’s not really the subject that people like to talk about in detail. And never tell another person their food looks disgusting. A simple question, like asking someone what they had for lunch and whether they enjoyed it is enough. No need for any more than that.
Dos and Don’ts on making small talk in English
I have included here a list of things you should do and not do when making small talk with someone in English.
Do Smile — it will help you tremendously. People respond well to a big welcoming smile. Plus, it will make you feel much more at ease and give you confidence.
Do have belief in your English ability — many English learners think their English skills are just not good enough to engage in conversation with another person. Usually, this is not true. If you can read this, you are perfectly capable of making small talk in English. Just try.
Do listen — you have ears too. Listen carefully to what the person is saying to you as this can help you have a deeper conversation.
Be polite — at all times make sure you are polite at all times to the person you are talking to.
Don’t bite your nails — it is a clear sign of nervousness. This also means not putting your hand anywhere near your mouth when talking.
Don’t interrupt — if making small talk with someone, wait until they have finished saying something before asking them another question.
Don’t interrogate — ask questions by all means but do not interrogate them. Keep things easy-going and relaxed.
Look for cues
One of the biggest problems when making small talk is knowing when to engage with someone.
You need to be aware of visual cues. This means checking for body language and facial expressions.
If someone is checking their phone all the time this means that they do not wish to talk to anyone or they are busy checking messages. It is probably a waste of time trying to make small talk with this person.
If the person is standing or walking with their head up, looking ahead and a calm, relaxed look on their face they are probably open to talking with someone.
If someone smiles at you, even just a small half smile, take this as a strong cue you can make small talk with them. Do not hesitate.
If someone glances at you, then they may be showing curiosity towards you. Again, this is a strong visual cue to chat with them.
If someone has their arms crossed, this is body language that says do not disturb. No point in talking to this person.
As I stressed at the beginning, going over phrases and useful sentences is not enough. You need to put these into practice.
If you attend an English class, that may be the perfect place to try the phrases out. Create a situation with your classmates and act out a scene where you can make small talk. Your teacher should advise you in each scenario that you try.
Keep practising with your classmates or with other English learners until you feel confident to speak the phrases out with ease.
Eventually, you will have to try to make small talk in English in a real-life situation. Yes, it is terrifying. But do it once and you will feel much more confident. Then you will be able to try again and again.
Observe what happens each time you try, and learn from it.
After some time you will find that you can make small talk in English with almost any kind of person in any kind of situation.