Updated: Jan 13
Some people love it, and some people loathe it. In America, it’s a fact of life. What is it, and why is it so important in America? Small talk is discussion about safe and light topics at the beginning of a conversation, and it’s a powerful way to build connection and trust with another person.
I'm going to explore small talk further in this article by offering examples and tips in order to build your confidence in social settings.
The Variables at Play
I've learned over the years that some people aren’t used to engaging in small talk. It can be due to an individual’s personality or culture, a combination of the two, or other factors.
Several of my clients come from what they describe as more direct cultures and tend to use more straightforward language when asking questions and giving opinions. In America, on the other hand, when meeting new people or having a conversation with someone we haven’t seen in a while, we tend to use small talk first before we move into deeper topics.
We don’t generally do this to be manipulative or purposefully evasive; we do it because we care what you think, and we want to be certain that we don’t offend you. Most of the time, small talk comes from this mindset.
Some people are more introverted than extroverted. Extroverted people feel more energy when they are engaging with others, while introverts feel more energized when they are allowed “down-time” by themselves. But, even extroverts have days when they are less likely to be talkative.
That’s because few people are 100% extroverted or 100% introverted. But these categories can help us to understand why small talk can be easier for some who genuinely love being around people, while it’s more difficult for others.
These are two examples of factors that might influence a person's desire or lack of desire for small talk. Of course, many other variables may be at play (maybe the person is running late, isn't comfortable with English, or has had bad experiences talking to strangers; we can never truly know what motivates another) but this gives you an idea of two possibilities at play.
Maybe you aren’t exactly sure what small talk even means. Let’s look at an example.
Let's pretend that you are a customer at a busy restaurant, and the waiter has just arrived at your table. You look around and notice how busy the place is.
You say: It’s crazy busy here.
The waiter will mostly respond by validating that observation.
You follow up with: Is it normally this busy?
The waiter responds by explaining why it is particularly busy right now, and you have just engaged in successful small talk.
I find it interesting that such seemingly inconsequential exchanges can feel genuinely satisfying. This is because oftentimes the main drive behind small talk is our human desire to build a connection with a person.
In the above example with the waiter, by showing that you are aware that he has his hands full, you are showing sympathy and understanding.
It is from a place of understanding that connection can grow.
Another approach—and this is very American—is to make an ironic statement (or ask an ironic question) to engage someone.
In the restaurant example, it might look like this:
Slow day, huh?
The waiter or waitress will probably give you a smile. By making the joking comment, you are once again showing that you understand the situation that the waiter is in (busy day with lots of tables), and that can build a small connection.
As I mentioned, the essence of small talk is usually building camaraderie. What you are really saying is:
I get it.
I may or may not have waited tables in the past, but I can definitely empathize with a busy day at work.
We’ve talked about why small talk can be difficult for some, the deeper reason for small talk, and looked at an example. Now, let’s look at the benefits.
Small Talk Benefits
But why does having a 20-second conversation with the waiter or waitress even matter?In turns out, small talk can reduce feelings of loneliness. Cari Romm, author of the CNN article Seven Simple Ways to Cope with Loneliness, suggests that you engage in small talk with store clerks and people you run into throughout your day.
When you go into your favorite coffee shop, make a simple comment about the weather or the music that's playing. Don't think of this as a time to start a long conversation, more as a way of making those brief, seemingly impersonal interactions a bit more friendly and inviting.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but engaging with a random stranger can make you feel a part of a bigger picture. In can make you feel not so alone in a particular situation.
Not to mention, It can be enjoyable to practice your English with new people. You can experiment with the English language by asking questions, and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
It’s a grand social experiment, if you’re up for it!
So, how can you practice?
1. Have the Right Mindset.
If you want to practice, try to keep this perspective in mind the moment you decide to engage in conversation:
How can I best connect with this person?
By entering the conversation with a desire to build a connection, you are setting a powerful intention that can positively influence the entire conversation.
2. Ask questions.
In order to enjoy small talk, it’s important to practice asking questions. The question form in English can be a little challenging for some learners. To get you started, here is a great review of how to form questions.
3. Remember to listen.
The next step is to be an fully-engaged listener to the person’s response. Try to be fully present. This means—and this is challenging—don’t worry about how you are going to respond. Just imagine your brain as a big sponge absorbing the speaker's words.
This is useful for two reasons:
First of all, when you are actively listening, you take in more information, both verbal and nonverbal data (for example, body language). This means that your comprehension of the person’s answer will be deeper and, most likely, more accurate. With a better understanding of your conversation partner, you can provide a better response yourself.
Secondly, as an active listener, you are “getting out of your own head,” which allows you to be of service to another person. We can serve others by being good listeners. This is one way to build connection.
If you'd like to learn more about active listening, check out my free course on active listening for ESL learners.
4. Offer your thoughts and opinions.
Remember that in the United States the freedom of speech is an important tenet (belief), and “speaking our mind” is an important part of the American tradition for many people. If you have an opinion or an idea to add to the conversation, consider sharing it. When you share your ideas, you are helping to build understanding and trust. Not everyone will agree with your opinions, but there is satisfaction in speaking your truth.
5. Remember that family and fun are generally universal.
The same topics that make you happy to think about will most likely be of interest to your listener too.
How is your family doing?
What are your plans for the weekend?
How was your day?
What activities did you do today?
The answers to these questions might seem unimportant, but family and fun are universal experiences. When we talk about the small things, we realize that—despite our political, religious, or social beliefs—we have the same fundamental love of life and our families.
Ugh, this feels so superficial.
Yes, it’s true that small talk can feel superficial and inauthentic to some people, but it doesn’t have to feel that way. Approach the conversation with an attitude of curiosity about the other person, and you’ll discover that small talk is really an amazing opportunity to connect with those around you.
So, don’t let the name fool you. Just because it is called small talk doesn’t mean its effects are small. On the contrary—small talk can make you feel a part of something much bigger than yourself. #ESLSpeaking #AmericanSmallTalk #ESLConversation #Englishconversation #smalltalk