There are two types of small talk: the kind you have with strangers, and the kind you have with people you already know. This article focuses on small talk with people you already know, as I have seen this be a challenge for many learners.
Not all languages and cultures use small talk, but people in the United States (and other countries) make small talk regularly. If you want to be a great conversationalist, small talk is key! This article gives common questions, replies, and general etiquette to help you master your conversation skills with Americans and many others.
In the United States, we almost always start a conversation by asking the other people how they are doing, and we might also ask if they have any life updates they would like to share. These small interactions might seem pointless but they are actually a really important part of how we interact with each other.
The first few moments of the conversation set the tone for the interaction. Start it out right!
The odd thing is, the questions we ask each other don't require an honest answer, and this might be strange for you depending on your cultural background. The positive side to this is you don't need to think too much about your answer! In fact, if you pay attention to conversations, you'll notice you hear the same generic questions and answers over and over again. While it might feel silly and meaningless, I do recommend you participate in the small talk - it is culturally polite, shows you are friendly, and leaves a good impression on people.
The most widely used small talk starters to use with people you already know
When to ask it
You might have seen online content saying to avoid this phrase because "it's boring." This isn't true. We use it all the time. It's classic and never goes out of style!
When you talk to someone after work or in the evening, you can ask them how their day was.
If you meet someone midday, ask them how their day is going.
All of these work well when you haven't spoken with someone in a while.
This one has generic replies that are quite common, but if you do have something notable to share - go ahead! Make a comment about work or a recent vacation you've taken, for example. Generally we keep it short, though.
A sample conversation:
👨🏼 Hey, Louise!
👩🏽🦰 Hey, Mark! How's it going?
👨🏼 Ah, pretty good! What about you? What's new with you?
👩🏽🦰 Hanging in there! Not too much going on. Waiting for the weekend!
👨🏼 I feel you on that!
👩🏽🦰 What about you? How's life treating you?
You can imagine how the conversation will continue. Mark will share a detail from his life and they'll discuss that topic for a bit. In this example the conversation goes back and forth. Each person gets a chance to share, and feels noticed.
How to be a fluent, confident speaker? Don't skip the small talk!
Don't forget to return the question when someone asks you a "small talk question". It's easy to forget when you are focusing too much on your own English. You're thinking about how to answer correctly and trying to avoid mistakes - but this is important. When a person asks you what is new in your life, you should ask them, too. You don't have to ask the exact same question - pick one from the list or simply say "how about you?" / "and you?"
This is how you avoid that awkward silence that occurs when no one knows what to say.
Feel free to leave a comment, or ask me a question in the section below.