Guest post by Ashleigh of My Business English Coach.
Welcome to part 2 of our making small talk series, where we are showing you how to make small talk (in English) all around the world. If you want to improve your English small talk, you have found the right place!
I hear you, making English small talk is no piece of cake (this means it’s not easy to do), it can often be awkward and even embarrassing. You have to know what to say and when to say it. That’s why Jennifer and I have decided to show you how to make small talk so that you rock small talk in 2018.
Why do you need to rock small talk in 2018? Small talk is the beginning of almost every social and professional relationship you will ever have. Small talk helps establish trust between you and another person, leading to future relationships. Small talk can lead to amazing conversations, a new job, a new deal or client, even, a life partner or a new friend. At the very least talking to other people makes us feel good.
So, if you need to make English small talk, improve your English small talk or have more confidence when chatting in English, you have found the right series to help you.
In part 1 of this series Jennifer taught us what small talk is, how to become a small talk guru in America and some dos and don’ts in American small talk. If you haven’t read it yet, you can read it here. In part 2 of this series, I will show you how to make great small talk in Great Britain, the dos and don’ts, as well as lots of small talk tips and phrases to get you making small talk with confidence.
How to make small talk in America versus Great Britain, there’s a difference
In Britain you shouldn’t speak unless you are first spoken to, absolutely don’t touch (that means no handshake) unless a hand is given to you first, and address the person by saying your Majesty or Ma’am, in other words, small talk with the Queen of England is difficult!
Ok, so maybe you won’t be chatting with the Queen of England but there are some differences between American and British small talk (although with globalization these differences are becoming less and less of a problem).
I love making small talk with Americans, they are some of the easiest people to chat to in the world because (in general) Americans are always very friendly, will strike up a conversation almost immediately and do most of the chatting for you, great!
In Britain the art of small talk is a little different. In the beginning people will tend to come across more reserved and less friendly, but don’t worry, they warm up fast.
Here are some of the biggest differences between British and American small talk
1. What do you do?
In America this question is a perfectly acceptable small talk question and it is often asked almost immediately but in Britain (and Europe) many people dislike this question. Why? Some people argue that work is boring and therefore not a suitable topic, others say it’s because it’s irrelevant or too personal.
Look at this answer on Quora:
“I remember getting in trouble when I met a woman from Holland and asked, “What do you do for a living?”
It’s a common question Americans ask.
“Why do you care? Would you speak to me differently if I were a janitor than if I were a corporate president?”
The takeaway? Don’t ask what someone does for a living in your first 5 questions.
2. Personal information
Americans are far more open about their personal lives. They’re happy to tell you where they live, whether they are married or single, where they work and what their private interests are. In Britain small talk is usually more impersonal and it is very rare that people will want to share such personal information. That’s why British people ask roundabout questions. Roundabout questions are indirect questions that let the person answer as much or as little as they want. Americans on the other hand tend to ask direct questions. It’s very similar to the difference between British roads, which are full of traffic circles, and American roads, which follow a block system. Let’s look at an example.
Person 1: Where do you live?
Person 2: I live in New York.
Person 1: Have you travelled far?
Person 2: Yes/ no, I live here in London/ not really.
3. Earnest and Sarcastic remarks
Another big difference between chatting to Americans and Brits is that Americans tend to be much more earnest. This means that they will ask you direct questions and answer your questions honestly. British small talk can be a bit sarcastic at times (sarcasm is when you say exactly the opposite of what you mean).
Americans are also more conscious of being politically correct and therefore, they won’t say anything that might be offensive. British people on the other hand may sometimes make remarks which could be considered offensive in other countries. Let’s look at an example:
Person 1: The weather is really terrible today, all this rain and ice.
Person 2: Yeah, it was difficult to drive here, I hope it improves tomorrow.
[Outside it’s raining, windy and icy]
Person 1: Lovely weather today, aren’t we lucky?
Person 2: Yup, my favourite weather, mother nature must be in the same mood as my mother in law.
4. Where they make small talk
Americans love to chat anywhere, in queues, at the shops or on the bus. In Britain, small talk is reserved for social events and gatherings such as at parties or work functions; or at social places such as bars or cafes. So don’t be offended if you try to start up a conversation in a queue or bus and you are ignored.
How to make Small talk in Great Britain
So you’re at a business meeting in Britain, having a pint at the pub, or attending an afternoon tea and you would like to make some ‘chit chat’, here’s how to make small talk in Britain.
Let’s start at the very beginning with introductions. An introduction is important because it sets the tone for the rest of your conversation. Try to be confident when you introduce yourself (make eye contact and speak loudly and slowly, when you are nervous you tend to rush your words and sound scared). If you want more tips on body language check out part 1 of our small talk series.
Here are some good introductory phrases to try:
Hello, I’m Ashleigh (handshake, unless it’s the Queen or their hands are full of drinks and food), it’s nice to meet you.
I don’t think we’ve met before, I’m Rachel, what’s your name?
I’ve seen you here before but we haven’t spoken before, I’m Tom, nice to meet you.
I don’t believe we’ve met before, I’m Andrew.
Talking about the weather
Yes, of course it’s become a bit clichéd (something which is overused) but I prefer to think of weather small talk as a classic topic rather than a clichéd topic and in Britain, talking about the weather is a National hobby. Talking about the weather is always a good starting point, it’s a great way to break the ice. Just make sure you move the conversation past the weather quickly or it will become really boring.
Some phrases about the weather:
Great weather today, isn’t it?
Is it cold outside?
A lot of rain lately.
Looks like it’s going to snow today.
With all this snow, I wish I could be skiing right now/ be in Hawaii right now.
Phrases to use at social events
At social events, commenting on the surroundings, décor, host or food is a great way to start up a conversation in Britain.
You can try phrases like:
I love these snacks, they’re so healthy.
Is this your first time here?
Have you tried the sandwiches yet?
Wow, I just love the chandelier they’ve chosen.
How do you know the host?
Of course, the news is always a great topic to chat about because it’s not too personal and it can be quite interesting.
What do you think about the taxi driver strike?
Did you hear about that new mall opening in Holly square?
I heard Tesla just launched a new model.
I can’t believe Apple and Samsung are still in court.
What should you avoid when making small talk?
Jennifer’s got it covered, take a look at part 1 of this series where Jennifer discusses which topics to avoid when making small talk in America, and luckily it’s the same in Britain.
It’s time to say goodbye
Ending the conversation can always be a bit awkward, and of course, you don’t want to be rude or upset the other person. So how do you end the conversation nicely? Use one of these methods (below) to say goodbye (usually followed by a handshake). Keep your goodbyes clean and simple, no need to drag it out. It’s perfectly polite to end a conversation. Here are some ways to end a conversation politely:
Say thank you and goodbye
It’s been great chatting to you, I’ve got to go.
It was lovely meeting you.
Thank you for telling me about (…), enjoy the rest of your evening!
Ask for the bathroom or offer to get another drink
Do you know where the bathroom is?
I could use another coffee/drink, can I get you another drink/ coffee?
Give a reason to leave
It was great to meet you, I have to get to work/ my next meeting/ an appointment.
I enjoyed chatting to you, can I add you on Facebook/ LinkedIn?
Thank you for talking with me, let me give you my business card.
I would love to meet up with you again, perhaps we can chat more about those ideas you had. Can I have your card?
How to make GREAT small talk in English
Watch this short clip, has this ever happened to you? (It probably has).
If you want to avoid awkward small talk filled with lots of silences and embarrassment, you need to get the other person chatting. The best way to make great small talk is to make the other person feel special and interesting. How do you do this? Show you are interested in them by asking lots of questions and a few follow up questions (try to limit it to two or three follow up questions, you don’t want the other person to feel like they are being interrogated by the police).
Let’s look at an example of follow up questions.
Person 1: “I like these snacks you made.”
Person 2: “Thanks!”
Person 1: “Where did you get the recipe? I always enjoy trying to cook new things.”
Person 2: “I found them online.”
Person 1: “Oh yes, what’s your favourite website?”
If a person asks you a question, reply and then ask them how about you?
Person 1: Is this your first time here?
Person 2: Yes it is, how about you?
Person 1: No, I come here all the time.
Person 2: I can see why, the coffee is fantastic.
Agreeing markers to show you are listening
If you want to make great small talk, you need to be a good listener, it’s polite and it will make your partner want to talk to you. In English we show someone we are listening to them by asking follow up questions, nodding and making eye contact and by using certain phrases or prompts.
Here are some good phrases to show someone that you are listening to them while they talk.
Really? (with a rising intonation)
Mmm or Uh-huh
The end (for now)
Small talk is a big English skill for you to master. At first it can be a little awkward and scary, that’s ok. Once you’re over the first bump, the conversation starts to gather speed and it’ll become a lot easier (if it doesn’t, no problem, try again). The best way to learn is by doing, so get talking!
We would love to hear from you, what are some great and not so great small talk topics in your country? Let us know in the comments below.
Next week Jennifer will be telling you about small talk in South America, how small talk in South America is different, some more small talk tips to help you improve your small talk and some interesting facts about South America. You can check out her post here. I can’t wait, cheers for now.
If you liked this article, please spread the love and share it, so we can all rock small talk in 2018.
Do you want to read through the entire series? Here’s links to everything!
Part 1: Small talk in the U.S.
Part 2: Small talk in Great Britain
Part 3: Small talk in South America
Part 4: Small talk in Japan