5 Easy Tips for Making Small Talk in English

Small talk is one of the most common types of conversation you’ll have in English. It can happen in almost any situation -- whether you’re about to start a meeting at work or order coffee. 

It’s also the type of conversation you have when you meet someone new, and it can lead to more deep and meaningful conversations. This makes it an important skill in both your personal and professional life.

But as an English language learner, small talk can be difficult! So today, we’ll share our five best tips for improving this basic conversation skill.

Tip #1: Prepare answers to common questions

There are most likely some questions that you get asked a lot, especially as part of small talk, such as:

  • Where are you from?
  • What do you do for a living?
  • How was your weekend?

Instead of thinking of an answer every time you’re asked these questions, prepare some answers ahead of time! For example, if you were a cook, here’s how you might answer “What do you do for a living?”

I’m a cook at a Mexican restaurant downtown.

So think of the most common questions you’re asked. To jog your memory, here are some examples:

  • Your family: e.g. "Do you have any siblings?" or “How’s your family?”
  • Your job: e.g. "What do you do for a living?" or “How’s your job going?”
  • Your current location: e.g. "Have you been here before?" or “How long have you lived here?”
  • Your hobbies: e.g. "What do you do for fun?" or “What games are you playing these days?”
  • Any activities you’re involved with: “How’s your book club going?”

After you’ve come up with a list of questions, start thinking of your answers to them! This way you will feel more comfortable answering them, and you can even ask a few as well. Preparing in advance will also let you look up the words and phrases you need to answer these questions clearly.

Tip #2: Add a little detail

In English conversations, it’s a good idea to add a little detail when you answer a question. For example, if you’re a flight attendant, a fun fact you can share is that you get free flights.

I’m a flight attendant, which means I get to travel all over the world for free!

Little details like this can make the conversation more interesting. They’ll also help keep the conversation going, since your conversation partner now has some ideas about what questions to ask next.

But remember to keep your responses short. Usually two or three sentences is enough. People tend to enjoy conversations more if they get lots of chances to speak.

It might also be useful to check out “How to Answer 'How Are You?' Like a Native English Speaker” for examples of details you can mention when answering the question “How are you?”!

Tip #3: Cushion your questions

A common piece of advice for making small talk is to ask a lot of questions. However, many English language learners apply this advice in the wrong way and end up asking too many questions without anything in between.

If you do this, you’ll not only run out of questions at some point, but you might also make your conversation partner feel like they're being questioned by the police! 

So instead of asking questions one after another, “cushion” your questions with statements. For example, in the following dialogue, the second speaker uses “What a lovely name!” to cushion their question “Where are you from?” 

Arisa
My name is Arisa.
Bill
What a lovely name! And where are you from, Arisa?

Here’s another dialogue. Can you spot the cushion?

Chris
I’ve been a vegetarian for five years.
Devi
Wow, that’s a long time! Why did you choose to become a vegetarian?

Statements like “What a lovely name!” and “Wow, that’s a long time!” help show that the speaker is interested in their conversation partner’s responses. This helps build rapport and can also make the conversation flow more naturally.

Tip #4: Ask open-ended questions

Our next tip is to ask open-ended questions. For example, let’s say one of your coworkers just got married. Which of the following questions would you ask?

  1. Do you plan to have kids?
  2. What plans do you have for your future together?

Of course, depending on how close you are and what culture you’re from, asking if a person plans to have kids may be considered inappropriate. 

However, for the purposes of small talk, there is another reason why open-ended questions like “What plans do you have?” are usually better than yes-no questions like “Do you plan to have kids?”

The main reason is that open-ended questions give the other person the option of answering in different ways. They can include whatever details they are comfortable with and think are most interesting. This will then give you more information about what you can ask next, which will keep the conversation going. 

In comparison, a yes-no question only lets them say "yes" or "no," and could make it harder for your conversation partner to think of what to say next.

Sometimes a yes-no question can't be avoided, and it's okay to ask one. Just remember that open-ended questions have the following benefits:

  1. They encourage people to explain themselves in more detail.
  2. They avoid sensitive topics. For example, some people may not want kids. Or they may be unable to have kids — in this case, asking “Do you want kids?” can be insensitive.
  3. They give people more freedom in terms of how they answer your question, which may lead to more conversation. For example, in response to “What plans do you have?” your coworker may say they want to buy a home or get a dog with their spouse.

Tip #5: Start by agreeing

This last tip is about conversation starters. Although open-ended questions are better at keeping a conversation going, English speakers often start conversations with simple yes-no questions. For example:

  • If you’re outside waiting for something, someone might say to you: “It’s cold, isn’t it?”
  • If you’re in a meeting room, someone might say: “These meetings always start late, don't they?”
  • If you’re at a party, someone might try to strike up a conversation by saying: “The drinks are pretty good, don’t you think?”

Because these questions are asked as conversation starters, it’s standard to agree in response. As the BBC explains:

If someone says: “Cold, isn’t it?” and you say: “Well actually, no,” the person would be a bit taken aback [surprised], and feel that that was a discourteous [impolite] thing to say.

Why do Brits talk about the weather so much? | BBC

So it’s always easier to agree. It’s even better if you add a little detail when you do that! For example, in response to “Cold, isn’t it?” you could respond, “Yeah, it’s freezing!” In this case, in addition to agreeing (“Yeah”), you also add the detail (“It’s freezing”).

But what if you want to disagree? It is possible to disagree and still keep the conversation flowing. You just want to disagree in the right way. 

  1. Make sure you are friendly: For example, smile and speak in a friendly tone of voice. Otherwise, the other person may think you’re not interested in speaking to them.
  2. Provide a short reason: If you’re disagreeing, you do not just want to say “No” and end there — try to explain why you disagree in a friendly and interesting way. For example, in response to “Cold, isn’t it?” you can say, “Oh, this is actually warm where I’m from!” or “Oh, I’m actually sweating, but that may be because I always wear too many clothes!”

Of course, if someone tries to make small talk with you but says something rude, something that you strongly disagree with, or something that makes you uncomfortable, you don’t need to agree with them or continue the conversation if you don't want to!

Want to practice English conversation?

Practice makes perfect! If you don’t feel comfortable making small talk, get some practice! 

Our Conversation lessons cover a wide variety of topics that come up in small talk, such as the weather, sports, famous sites in your city, your favorite restaurant, the music you like, and more. 
Take these lessons with an Engoo tutor and you’ll be speaking English in no time!