Helping Learners Understand Spoken English

Small Talk Explained

cartoon about small talkImage source

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 can vary 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. However, in some cultures, this is a natural question to ask when you are beginning to get to know someone.

Where are you going?, a greeting that is common in Korean, is one we wouldn’t ask someone in English unless we are friends with them.  We also don’t ask, Have you eaten lunch?

Related post: English and Korean Language Differences – How Culture Influences Language

So, now you might be wondering:

What is okay to ask 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 or weekend (How’s your day going? / How was your weekend?)
  • observations (This place is so crowded.)
  • work (How’s work?)
  • school (How’s school? / How are your classes?)
  • current events and news (Did you hear about…?)
  • compliments (I like your bag. / Nice bag.)

Some of these could lead to more meaningful and in depth conversations, but many are used for quick, short, and polite conversations. Here is an example of a typical, short, polite conversation with small talk:

Elsa: It’s been so hot in Seoul this summer.

Ollie: I know, right? I’m dying.

Elsa: Me too. I hope it cools down soon.

Ollie: So do I. I can’t wait for fall and cooler weather.

Note: be careful when bringing up current events and news. Politics and religion can be sensitive topics.

Next: Small Talk, Part 2 What are your plans for the weekend?

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To learn more about small talk, check out the following article by Yuliya Geikhman on FluentU: 7 English Small Talk Topics for Starting Friendly Conversations or this one by EMMAS: 4 Ways That Small Talk Improves Business English Conversation.

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– Trey