What is small talk?
Small talk is a type of polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial things. In English, small talk is used as a polite greeting, a conversation starter, or a way to start to get to know someone. Small talk is different in different cultures. Questions that are normal and natural in your language might be impolite in another language.
In English, “How old are you?” is not a polite question unless you are talking to a child. Also, unless we are friends with someone, we wouldn’t greet someone by asking, “Where are you going?” We also don’t ask, “Have you eaten lunch?” We’ll learn about the reasons for this in the Culture Corner.
So, now you might be wondering:
What is okay to say and ask in English when we first meet someone?
The short answer is: it depends. It depends where you are and how you know the person. And of course it varies culturally. Americans often talk to strangers. Many Americans engage in small talk in public places with people they do not know. This is a perfectly normal part of life in many parts of the United States. This can seem strange if you come from a culture where talking to strangers is less common. Remember, it depends on where you are. If you try to start talking to a New Yorker at rush hour in Manhattan, don’t expect a friendly chat to be the result. It also depends on the situation. We don’t talk to everyone we see all the time. That would be too much. Everything depends on context.
Common small talk topics (with examples in parenthesis) include:
- the weather (“It’s so cold today.”)
- the day (“How’s your day going?”)
- observations (“This place is so crowded.”)
- work (“How’s work?”)
- school (“How’s school?”)
- current events and news (“Did you hear that Oprah might run for president?”)
- compliments (“I like your bag.” or “Nice bag.”)
Some of these could lead to a real conversation, but many are simply short and polite small talk.
Note: be careful when bringing up current events and news. Politics and religion can be sensitive topics.
If you want to read more about small talk or small talk for business, check out 7 English Small Talk Topics for Starting Friendly Conversations or 4 Ways That Small Talk Improves Business English Conversation.