Small Talk the British Way
Updated: Dec 12, 2017
Many languages don’t even have a word or expression for the concept of "small talk" but in Britain we love it, and we do a lot of it. Making small talk is as British as Buckingham Palace or a cup of tea!
If you are learning English, you've probably wondered how you can make small talk. This blog and the ones to follow will show you how to do it.
What is Small Talk?
Small talk is a kind of polite conversation meant to avoid "awkward silence" and allow people to be friendly at social gatherings. It involves sticking to general and unimportant topics - nothing offensive or sensitive. It’s often the kind of conversation you make when you first meet a person or a group of people. We use small talk at work, at parties, in supermarket queues, in parks and cafes and while we’re waiting for the bus.
In fact, small talk is an essential part of communication in Britain, and it's important to try it if you want to practice your English.
Why do we love small talk in Britain?
British people are quite reserved and don’t like to get straight into deep conversations with strangers. They like to get to know them a bit first, and small talk is a perfect way to do this.
Small talk can often lead to "bigger" talk, and to a deeper relationship with people. It’s a bit like the first course of a meal. Don't forget to use a smile and a friendly tone of voice!
Small talk varies from country to country. As I mentioned earlier, in some countries, like Sweden, they don’t seem to do it at all. Instead, they go directly to the point or don't talk at all. In China, small talk can include money or business matters, which isn't polite in many European cultures. In the USA, people use a lot of compliments in small talk, such as: ‘I love your earrings, T shirt, trainers’.
Lovely Weather, Isn't It?
All over the world, the British are famous for talking about the weather. And it’s absolutely true: we do use the weather a lot for small talk. Why?
Firstly, it’s a subject which everyone can contribute to, as we all experience the weather. Secondly, it’s a safe topic; it will not embarrass or upset people.
Thirdly, as anyone who has been to Britain will know, there’s a lot to talk about! In countries where the weather stays hot and sunny most of the summer, or cold all winter, there’s not much to say about the weather. However, here in Britain, there’s plenty to discuss because our weather is very changeable and unpredictable. We can have four or five different types of weather in one day - one moment it is warm and sunny, the next it is pouring down with rain!
And when there’s nothing more to say about today’s weather, we talk about yesterday’s weather or tomorrow’s! (more about weather talk in a later blog post)
Keep it Safe
The important thing about small talk is to stick to general, shared subjects like the weather. However, there are other common topics you can try, such as traffic, dogs, babies, children and your surroundings.
Queen Elizabeth II is apparently also the queen of small talk as she meets a lot of different people all the time. The question she most often asks is, "Have you come far?" This shows interest in the other person without being too personal and is a beautiful example of talking about journeys or travel.
How to Start a Small Talk Conversation
Do you want to make small talk to practice your English skills? Don't just wait for someone to speak to you - start a conversation yourself! You can make a statement or ask a question when you want to start a conversation with someone. Here are some examples you can try:
5 Small Talk Starters
Statement: I’m surprised how warm it is for November!
Question: ‘Do you think it’s going to rain later?’
Statement: Those roadworks are really slowing the traffic down.
Question: Is there usually so much traffic here at this time of day?
Statement: Your dog’s enjoying its run in the park.
Question: What kind of dog is it?
Statement: She/he/your baby seems to like looking at the trees.
Question: Is she/he/are they always so happy?
Statement: Those yellow flowers smell so nice!
Question: I wonder what that tree is? It’s very unusual.
In our next blog post, we'll look at ways to develop a small talk conversation or respond when someone starts one with you.
One last tip...
Our self-study workbooks include some great topics for small-talk (or more in-depth talks) with friends or colleagues. Each workbook includes a real-world English article, audio file, or video you can use to build your vocabulary and confidence. Never worry about what to chat about again!