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“A conversation can be easy. Just ask a question and then listen.”
–Robert Bly (1926-), American poet and author
Previously on the blog, we discussed the importance of first impressions. A firm handshake goes a long way, but what happens afterward? How do we teach English language learners to keep a conversation going post-introduction?
When speaking with someone new, many Americans start conversations without a clear purpose beyond positive feelings and general curiosity. This communication style is known as “small talk,” and helps build a rapport between acquaintances. As a result, Americans don’t often wait for formal introductions; they approach others freely and may even share personal stories with people they’ve just met.
Such informality makes some uncomfortable, but these exchanges provide a unique opportunity for English language learners. Making small talk teaches English students and immigrants to be confident and straight to the point as quickly as possible. It also allows for more direct and sincere conversation than many are accustomed to in their native language or culture. American small talk also tends to be casual and cheerful, usually following the conversational advice of “be light, bright, and polite.”
Here are a few common small talk topics to review with your students:
Small Talk Topics
1. Start conversation by flashing a big smile to the stranger and asking, “How are you?”
Note: Keep in mind that this is simply a greeting and not a question about the individual’s health. If asked this question, don’t give a detailed account of your health history. Just give a short, positive response: “I’m good.”
2. How was your day?
3. What brings you here?
4. How do you like this weather?
5. Comment on the surroundings or ask a question about the immediate environment. We’re in the same place so start by building on that shared experience. How would describe this place?
7. Ask for recommendations for a new TV show, seeing a movie, or eating at a nearby restaurant. Your curiosity about their recommendations shows respect, collects information, and allows you to share your experiences.
A Few Taboos
1. We would suggest never asking a new American acquaintance a direct question about their salary, religion, age, money, or weight. These topics can be awkward and uncomfortable.
2. Obviously, you avoid making negative remarks or repeating ugly stereotypes that might be seen as rude, racist, or cruel. Small talk is about building bridges and not making insults. It’s safer to avoid discussing religion when first meeting someone unless you are at a religious event to discuss spiritual topics.
In my classes, I often have students come up with their own small talk topics for practice. The following pair/group activities make fine classroom conversation activities. Feel free to use!
Activity 1: With a partner, add 5 possible topics for small talk.
Activity 2: Write a friendly question for each of these topics.
Activity 3: Turn to a partner and practice small talk.
Do you make small talk with your students? What are some of your go-to topics for engaging in small talk with strangers? What small talk tips can you share with us?