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Principles of Making Small Talk in English & Guidelines for Casual Conversations

If you’re interested in having better conversations in English, you’re probably already familiar with the concept of small talk.

Because making small talk is so essential in English-speaking cultures, I want to make sure we’re on the same page.

Let’s go back to basics and talk about the principles for making small talk.

But first, I want to remind you: making small talk is incredibly cultural.

Small talk may vary between cultures, so I’m going to explain the role of small talk in English-speaking countries, particularly the US.


What Do We Mean By Small Talk?

Small talk describes the casual conversations that you have when:

  • you don’t know the person very well;
  • you’re not sure how you feel about them; or
  • you’re not really interested in getting into a longer, more in-depth conversation right now.

This is why small talk is the initial stage of a casual conversation in English-speaking cultures.

Think of small talk as the gateway or doorway to the conversation.

You’re knocking on the door, waiting to see how the other person responds, and whether they’ll invite you in.

When you make small talk, you’re not entirely sure if you trust the other person or like them very much yet, so you see how you feel when discussing neutral topics and decide if you’re ready to share more.

If you’re not really sure it’s the right time to have a deeper conversation, you use small talk to test the waters.


Why You Want to Become Skilled at Making Small Talk

When you’re good at making small talk, you help the other person feel more confident about having a conversation with you.

You help them feel at ease in your company.

When the other person feels a little more relaxed, they understand that they can be open with you and start sharing how they truly feel and what they truly believe.

Fluid small talk can encourage the other person to feel more comfortable in your presence. As I mentioned earlier, it also helps them decide whether or not they like you or even trust you.

As you can see, small talk is really essential in order to have better personal and professional relationships.

Because small talk is so important in our culture, we usually feel like something is “off” if the other person doesn’t try to make small talk with us.

That’s why you often hear Americans make small talk with cashiers, salespeople, strangers on the bus, or even the bus driver!

In some cultures, small talk may be considered inefficient or even a waste of time, but in English-speaking cultures, small talk is absolutely required.

If you simply state what you want without making small talk first, it can seem like a demand or even rude.


Types of Situations Where You’ll Make Small Talk

Making small talk is often challenging or confusing for non-native speakers because there are a variety of situations where you may find yourself having these brief conversations.

You may make small talk with someone you don’t know at all, such as someone waiting for public transportation, a salesperson or cashier, or a stranger that you’re standing next to on the street, in a line, or in a waiting room.

You may also make small talk with someone you don’t know very well, such as someone you may have recently introduced yourself to, like someone sitting next to you on an overnight bus or on a flight, or someone that you may meet casually in at a work event or at a party.

If you’ve just met a person – for example, new colleagues or coworkers, people at a networking event, or friends of a friend at a party or gathering – you may also need to make small talk. Because you already have experiences in common, it will be different than talking to someone you don’t know at all.

You may also want to make small talk with acquaintances. Acquaintances are people who you don’t know very well, who you wouldn’t consider close friends, but who you interact with casually and often regularly. Making small talk is a way of being polite, but distant, during these interactions.

You may make small talk with a friend when you just don’t have time for a more lengthy conversation.

You can even make small talk with an extended family member or relative if you don’t see them very often and you don’t want to get into depth about your life. (Learn about handling uncomfortable questions from relatives here.)

You also make small talk with colleagues or coworkers when you’re interacting in the break room, at a meeting, at a formal lunch, or any situation where you run into each other in the office.

As you can imagine, all of these situations require a slightly different approach to making small talk.


Choosing Conversation Topics When Making Small Talk

Based on the situation and how well you know the person, you may choose different topics, be more or less direct or honest about how you truly feel, ask more engaging or more neutral questions, and thoughtfully decide how to respond.

For this reason, we tend to stick to more neutral conversation topics when making small talk.

You probably want to “read” or pay attention to the feeling that you get from the situation before deciding precisely which topic to bring up.

When the conversation gets going and you feel more comfortable with the other person, then you may want to expand to asking more in-depth questions.

For some ideas on neutral conversation topics, I highly suggest you download my free guide to making more interesting small talk.

(You can also check out my series of videos called Conversations with Kim, where we discuss one conversation question per episode in great detail.)

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Keep Small Talk Going For the Right Length of Time

So how long does small talk last, anyway? We generally expect the conversation to go around about three times.

If you just answer one question and end the conversation there, you’re not fully participating in small talk.

This may feel a little uncomfortable or abrupt, and as a result you may seem a little bit awkward or strange to the person you’re speaking with.

For this reason, I encourage you to make sure you’re asking and answering questions for at least three turns.

At that point, you’ll be able to pleasantly exit the situation. It’s just the way we make small talk in English!

If you decide you want to keep the conversation going, I encourage you to prepare yourself with questions you can potentially ask the other person.

I want to encourage you to ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions allow the other person to decide how much detail they want to share.

Open-ended questions also leave space to ask more questions and get into a deeper conversation, even on a more neutral conversation topic.

When you respond to questions, make sure you encourage the other person to ask you more questions.

Rather than giving a lengthy, complete answer, hold back a little. This allows the other person to ask you more questions and keep the conversation going for the expected number of rounds.


Connecting in Casual Conversations

Let’s discuss a few other important points about making small talk.

To be seen as a good conversationalist, you should try to learn the other person’s name and use it at least once in the conversation. That makes the person feel like they’re taking to another human! We all appreciate the opportunity to connect in conversation.

You also want to react to the other person when they’re speaking and expressing their ideas.

You can respond with more questions and show interest through your intonation.

You need to participate actively in conversation with rejoinders and conversation fillers, and demonstrate other active listening skills.

You also should try to show good body language that shows you’re open to having a deeper conversation with the other person.

(I’ll share more tips on active listening in the coming months!)


Your Turn

As you can see, there are a number of principles and expectations you need to consider when making small talk.

Small talk is a conversation skill that can be learned, and native English speakers often have to learn how to have better casual conversations too!

I hope you feel more confident making small talk in English after reading these guidelines and watching this video.

Remember to prepare for small talk and practice neutral, yet engaging questions so that you’re ready for the next opportunity to have a casual conversation in English.

To go into even more detail on small talk, you can join my mini-course on understanding and making small talk. With my guidance, you’ll start feeling even more confident in casual conversations in both social and professional situations.

Now it’s your turn! If you have any questions on making small talk, please leave a comment below.

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