Small Talk – Part1

What is small talk?

Small talk is an essential part of communication, including business. It is especially important for business people to master small talk in order to feel and seem confident speaking English in and out of the office. There’s nothing more refreshing than to engage in a light chat about anything but business in the coffee break, following a two-hour long, dense professional presentation or meeting you have just walked out of. It’s a power tool for building more trust, and get to know our business partners better.

At the same time, there’s no more frightening and awkward a situation than the coffee break chat time for many English language learners.

Why is that? Why does it not come easily?

This is actually quite simple to understand. As language learners, we tend to focus on being correct and trying to communicate our message in a way that the listener understands us easily. Also, we need to concentrate a lot to understand the speaker. So there’s no spare energy and focus left for creating the “filler material”. By this I mean expressions that fluent speakers use so easily, and which ultimately makes them into fluent speakers. (expressions like “I see”, “well”, “you know” etc).

Are these expressions complicated? No they aren’t. Are they spectacular? No, they’re not. They’re actually pretty empty and meaningless on their own. But when used, they make talking sound so much more conversational.

And they are the ones that are typically missing from the toolkit of a lot of language learners I have met. Even some advanced students struggle with this. When learners I often hear learners mostly fall back on asking question after question in order to ensure a conversation is going when they run out of what to say.

Now questions are great help to make you sound (and be) interested in a conversation. However, with filler material in between questions you will sound much friendlier, an much less like conducting an interview.

Why is it needed for better speech fluency?

Well, the simple answer is: because that’s how spoken English works. (in fact all languages I know or have learnt to speak).

A more technical answer is that we have no time to create filler expressions in the moment of speaking. It’s imply not economical. Forming ideas takes focus and energy, and we need that for the “real thing”. We need that for our main ideas.

So how do you make this work?  Well, it takes a little time to get used to using small talk expressions and techniques.

Start here: first observe your own first language. For example, next time you’re at a party or just walking back home from your favourite corner grocery store and bump into a friend or a neigbour, just check how many “empty” phrases and expressions you and your speaking partner use in a 5 minute light conversation.

You will be surprised to realise the amount of expressions like “ahm”, yeah, right”, “I see” etc that you will hear and/or use. Your goal is to use such expressions in English in a natural sounding way. Now it won’t happen overnight, but the first step is to realise how important these expressions are in colloquial (and sometimes even business) communication.

And the best way to see how important these expressions are in English is to see how important they are in your own mother tongue.

We’ll continue this topic in a future post with the next steps towards mastering small talk.


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