Guest post by Ashleigh of My Business English Coach.


The show goes on with more big tips and small talk questions and phrases! Welcome to part 4, the final part in our 4 part series on small talk, where I will show you how to make small talk in Japan, give you some Business small talk phrases, show you how to turn small talk into big interesting talk (no more weather questions) and some small talk red flags to watch out for.


Over the last 3 weeks Jennifer and I have given you lots of small talk questions, phrases and tips for making great small talk in America (read it here), and Great Britain (read it here). Last week Jennifer showed us how to make small talk in South America plus her number one tip for making small talk, you can read it here.


Naked small talk in Japan



Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? I was asked all three questions in quick succession on my first weekend in Japan, oh, and I was naked in a hot spring bath tub (‘onsen‘) with 10 Japanese ladies (all over 60 years old) and I couldn’t really speak Japanese.


These light small talk questions were followed by the more serious ones such as: what’s your blood type and are you the eldest, youngest or middle child in your family? Apparently, your blood type and family position are good indicators of your personality, character and whether you are compatible (= can live together, or work successfully with someone) with another person or not. Needless to say I was red in the face and not just from the hot water.


This was my first small talk experience in Japan and as you can imagine it’s been a memorable one. I am now a master of all these questions and I am fully comfortable with naked ‘onsen‘ small talk.


Some quick Japan small talk tips in case you end up naked in a bath tub (or even if you don’t)


Japanese people are the kindest most welcoming people I have ever met, so if you’re in Japan it’s time to get chatting.


This being said here are three things you should know:


First, Japanese people tend to be more shy and introverted. They will not voluntarily share any personal information but they’re always happy to answer all my questions, even the personal ones such as whether they have a family or where they come from.


Second, don’t get too physically familiar, physical distance is important in Japan (so avoid handshakes, hugs, kisses or touching).


Third, be careful not to share your opinion too strongly on any topic. Japanese people are extremely careful of offending anybody and therefore opinions are shared only with close family or friends. I once commented in a group that McDonalds makes really terrible food and it’s so unhealthy. My Japanese friend later asked me whether I was worried I had offended anyone. When I asked why, he said it’s possible that someone in the group likes McDonalds and eats there regularly and I may have embarrassed them now.


Great small talk topics in Japan


Including the Onsen questions above (which are usually reserved for more private small talk situations), Japanese people also love commenting on the weather, seriously, it’s a national sport. I love it because Japan can have some pretty extreme weather conditions (I’m usually melting or freezing). Commenting on the weather with fellow people is a great way to break the ice (= do or say something to get conversation going when strangers meet) and to show camaraderie (= the spirit of friendship and community in a group).


A second popular small talk topic in Japan is food. Food is an important part of family, school and social life in Japan. If you’ve ever seen Japanese cuisine or travelled to Japan, you’ll know that a lot of effort is put into the flavor, healthiness and presentation of their food. Different parts of Japan are very proud of their different specialty dishes, for example, in Nagano where I live, the Soba noodles are very famous.


So, if you really want to get chatting try asking someone:


What’s your favourite traditional dish?

What’s your favourite food your mother makes?

What’s your favourite winter/ summer/ spring/ autumn dish?

Where can I find a good Sushi place?

What food is your city most famous for?


Of course another great small talk topic is to comment on Japan itself and chat about differences between Japan and your country or things you have seen and loved in Japan. Jennifer gives great advice on this topic in part 3 of this series. Her number 1 small talk tip is: be curious and show the other person that you know at least one small thing about their culture by asking them a question about it. If you would like more phrases go read Jennifer’s post here.


Most people I have met travelling to Japan are travelling for business purposes because Japan is a big player in the global economy. Japan also prides itself in hosting any business visitors to (sometimes) multiple lunches, dinners or tours in addition to business. This leads me to one more small talk topic: small talk in business.


The business of small talk


“Small talk isn’t just about being gregarious (= likes the company of other people or sociable) or entertaining, it is a gesture of respect.” Brett Nelson


Small talk is important for building trust and ensuring new or future business relationships, deals and clients.


Japanese etiquette


Before we look at small talk questions let’s quickly look at some Japanese etiquette (= code of polite behaviour in a certain society/ community).


1. Bowing and shaking hands


In Japan it is customary to bow when you meet another person and continue bowing throughout all introductions and again in any goodbyes (starting or ending a meeting etc.). Bowing is a difficult skill to master in Japan (if you would like to know more you can read this post). My tip is to mimic (= copy) your Japanese colleagues, when they bow, you bow (it always works for me). You will soon get the hang of it.


Shaking hands is not customary in Japan, however, in business with western countries many Japanese business persons will shake your hand during the introductions in order to be more accommodating for their western guest. Usually the handshake is quite light and includes a small bow at the same time (they also often don’t make eye contact during the handshake, as it is considered rude).


2. Exchanging business cards


Exchanging business cards is important. Give and receive any business card with both hands and a bow. Then examine the card and comment on how nice the font is, or title of the person and carefully put it in your card holder or somewhere safe. In Japan, a business card is an extension of themselves.


3. Exchanging gifts


Gift giving is very important in Japan, so, if you can bring a small gift for your Japanese hosts (wrapped), do it. Usually some small traditional sweets from food from your home country are a good idea.


4. Drink pouring


If you are socialising with your Japanese colleagues or business partners, remember that no person may ever pour their own drink. If someone offers to pour you a drink (and they will often) then lift your cup with both hands and they will pour (if you don’t want to keep drinking leave your cup full). Offering to pour drink for your colleagues is a great way to break the ice and introduce yourself (just wait for them to lift up their cup first before you pour).


Business Small Talk Questions


Here are some small talk questions to try once you’re done talking shop (= talking about business related matters).


If you are going to be making business small talk before or after a meeting, over a business lunch, waiting for a presentation to start or at a networking event, prepare some small talk questions like these:


Warm up with:


What do you do?

Is this your first time here?

How did you get here today?

How long have you worked here?


Move on to:


How did you end up in your line of work?

What do you think is the best part of this job?


Get a bit more personal:


What do you do for fun?

What are you looking forward to this week?


Spice it up with:


If you weren’t working here, what would you probably be doing now?

Would you rather work four 10-hour days or five eight-hour days?

What was your first job? Did you like it?

What’s the best/ worst career advice you’ve ever received?


Or ask advice for a problem you have:


I’m trying to spend less time in meetings, what do you think we should do?


I’m not sure if home office days are more or less productive, what do you think?


How to make small talk that’s not about the weather


By now, you may be a bit tired of small talk about the weather, work or other normal topics (or even better you’re becoming a confident small talk expert!). So how do you try turning small talk into big talk? You ask thought provoking opinion questions (questions that make someone think).




Instead of:


What do you do?

Do you enjoy your work?




How did you end up in this line of work?

How do you keep a work life balance?

If you could have any job in the world which job would you choose?


Instead of:


Where are you from?




What’s your hometown famous for?

What’s the best thing from your hometown?

What do you miss the most from your hometown?


Instead of:


Phew it’s hot today.




What’s your favourite season? Why?

Wow this is great weather for swimming, do you like swimming? Why/ Why not?


Instead of:


These snacks are really delicious.




Do you prefer to eat out or cook at home?

How did you make these snacks?


Instead of:


Wow, traffic is bad today.




Don’t you think traffic would improve if we had driverless cars?


Instead of:


Do you have any pets?




If you could have any type of animal for a pet, which animal would you choose?


Instead of trying to talk about the same topic, which you have both run out of ideas try changing the topic with these phrases:


Hey, let me ask you something, what kind of superhero would you like to be?


You know that reminds me, I’d really love to visit Hawaii.





Small talk red flags




Japan is famous for its subtlety (= not noticeable, loud or obvious). If you are being rude or offensive during small talk, no one will tell you. They will, however, give off small red flags that should tell you to stop.


If someone crosses their arms while talking to you, starts to look around the room or raises their eyebrows (without smiling), you are probably boring or offending them. They may also reply with multiple one word or evasive answers, in this case they probably do not want to talk about the topic so try changing to a new topic.


The End (for now)


Small talk is big and scary and you’re not alone in thinking it’s difficult (I think so too!) but try embracing it as a whole new skill, like learning to dance or ski (difficult at first until it becomes really fun). If you’re learning English to communicate, then you need small talk to actually connect with other people! If you’re learning English for business, small talk will help you achieve your career goals.


Well done for finishing this 4 part series on small talk! If you loved it and want to spread the word please share, share, share this post with your friends, colleagues, mailman and pets.


If you haven’t read the previous 3 posts in the series yet, here they are:


Part 1: Small talk in the U.S.


Part 2: Small talk in Great Britain


Part 3: Small talk in South America


Bonus alert! Ashleigh did a couple of bonus interviews on the art of making small talk with Alberto Alonso of Vaughan Radio and Shanthi Streat of English with a Twist! Check them out here!



Most of the time Ashleigh is passionately teaching business English students how to master business English and achieve even greater success in their careers, the rest of the time you will find her drinking wine, practicing aikido and trying to ski. Fun fact: she’s from South Africa.


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