Tips for Small Talk in English
How many times have you found yourself participating in small talk in English? Whether it’s waiting in line, talking to potential clients at a conference, or starting a conversation with a stranger at a dinner party, in today’s world, small talk is difficult to avoid.
Small talk is a challenge for most people, but especially when English is a second language. It’s perfectly normal to feel shy at the beginning. So don’t worry! By learning a few simple techniques, you’ll find small talk in English easier and you’ll make a good impression.
Today, we’re going to look at some tips to help you become more confident with small talk:
How to start small talk in English
How to end small talk In English
English grammar tips for small talk
Bonus tips for small talk in English
There’s one thing that will help you nail small talk in English and that’s practice and proper preparation. So, let’s get to it!
Tips on MAking Small Talk in English
How to start small talk in English
If you’re struggling with small talk in English, then planning ahead will definitely help you. Don’t beat yourself up if the conversation doesn’t go as expected at first. I know from experience that practice will help you get better at small talk and English conversations in general.
One technique that has helped me with small talk is learning and practicing expressions and dialogues in advance, because when you’re nervous, it helps to have a bunch of go-to conversation prompts in your back pocket.
If you don’t know where to start, here are some ideas to help you start a conversation easily:
Small talk tip #1: Talk about the place you’re in
Whether you’re at a hotel, restaurant, or an event, commenting about the place you’re in is a great way to strike up a conversation.
So, let’s say, you’re staying at a hotel, and on your way to your room, you bump into other people in the elevator. You could say:
Beautiful hotel, isn’t it?
A simple remark like this one will make you sound friendly and hopefully get the conversation started. Here are some other examples:
I can’t believe how gorgeous this place is!
Is it your first time here?
And if you want to follow-up, you can try asking about some of the facilities:
Have you been to the swimming pool yet?
I heard they have a spa upstairs.
Small talk tip #2: Comment on current situations or surroundings
So you’re at the airport and your airline announces that your flight has been cancelled due to bad weather. You look at the person standing next to you, and you know that you both share the frustration. So, what can you say?
Well, it looks like we’re gonna be here for a while.
And I was hoping to get home early…
If you notice, the first line is versatile. We’ve all been stuck in a place once, haven’t we?
Think about having to wait in line to pay at the grocery shop. Picture a conversation going like this one:
“It looks like we’re going to be here for a while!”
“I know. It’s super busy today.”
“Is it always like this?”
“Not really. I guess we picked the wrong line!”
“I’m Anna by the way.”
“I’m Nicole. Nice to meet you!”
“Oh, it's my turn finally.”
“Great! Have a nice day.”
“Thanks. You too!”
And that’s a quick and friendly chat you can adapt to other similar situations.
Small talk tip #3: Talk about work
Asking about work is a great way to break the ice.
Let’s say your friend invites you to a cocktail event and there are a lot of people you don’t know. So why not take the lead and ask questions like these:
So, what do you do?
What do you do for a living? Where do you work?
Are you working on any exciting projects?
Or maybe you’re sharing a meal with some new co-workers, and you want to make sure awkward silences are kept to a minimum. You can try these options instead:
How long have you worked in finance?
How was your first week at work?
Was it a busy week for you? Are you looking forward to the weekend?
Work-related questions are great conversation starters, especially if you don’t know much about the other person. The tone is neutral and polite but it still shows you’re engaged in the chat.
Note: Social norms vary significantly from one place to another. For example, in some parts of Europe, asking about what a person does for a living is considered rude - similar to asking how much someone earns. But in North America, it’s perfectly acceptable.
Small talk tip #4: Talk about life
This is my pick for small talk with acquaintances. If you bump into someone you haven’t seen in a while, you could say:
“Hey there! I haven’t seen you in ages! How have you been?”
“I’ve been great! What’s new with you?”
Or maybe you’re at a gym, and you’d like to start a conversation with the person working out next to you, you might say:
I haven’t seen you around here before. How long have you been training here?
And if you want to keep the conversation flowing, you can ask:
So, are you from (name of city)?
If the answer is “no”, follow up with:
Where did you grow up? Or,
How long have you lived here?
Small talk tip #5: Talk about movies, shows, or books
It may sound cliché but asking, “Have you watched any good shows lately?” is a good conversation starter.
You can also ask about someone’s opinion or recommendation:
That movie was so funny! What did you think of it?
I haven’t seen a good movie in a while. Do you have any recommendations?
Or if you like sports, that’s also a great icebreaker:
Did you watch the game last night?
If you chat about these things, be careful not to spoil the details!
Small talk tips #6: Talk about travel/plans
What a wonderful topic for small talk!
If there’s anything that gets people excited, it’s talking about their vacation plans.
Think about a holiday that’s coming up, for example:
If it’s Christmas, you can ask: Are you taking time off for Christmas? Do you have any special plans?
If it’s summer, you can ask: Are you planning on going away in the summer?
Similarly, maybe you find out someone is going abroad, you could comment :
I heard you’re moving to London next month! Are you excited?
Small talk tip #7: Give a compliment
Isn’t it lovely to see the smile on people’s faces when they get complimented?
It’s also a great way to strike up a conversation. For example:
That’s a cool jacket! Where did you get it?
I love your shoes, by the way. Where did you buy them?
And if you’re receiving a compliment, you could say:
Oh, that’s so sweet. Thanks!
That’s so kind of you.
Small talk tip #8: Ask about the connection to people
Let’s say, you’re at your friend’s place for a dinner party. You could start a conversation by asking:
So, how do you know the host?
Do you know many people here?
Small talk tip #9: Ask for recommendations
Here are some other useful structures to make small talk, and get something useful out of it:
I'm new here, anything you would recommend to see/do?
I’m only in town for a couple of days. What’s a must-see?
Any nice bars to grab a beer?
I’m looking for a nice place to eat. Any suggestions?
Now, if you get good recommendations, that’s a win!
Small talk tip #10: Talk about the weather
Everyone knows that talking about the weather never fails. That’s your go-to choice if you want to play it safe:
Beautiful/horrible day, isn’t it?
Can you believe all the rain/snow we've been having?
How to end small talk in English
So now that you’ve managed to get the conversation started, what can you say when you need to end it?
It’s important at this point to keep it polite, which is pretty much the essence of small talk. You don’t want to come across as rude, so you may want to say something nice before leaving or give a reason for having to leave.
Transitional words like “anyway” or “so” can be useful here:
Anyway, it’s been really nice talking to you!
So, I guess I should be leaving now if I want to make it to the show.
I hope we can talk again soon!
If it’s a situation where you just want a way out, this may work:
I’m going to get another drink now. It was nice talking to you!
I need to use the restroom. I’ll see you around!
It’s really late, I’d better get going.
What if you have to go, but want to stay in touch with someone? Some choices might be:
I’d love to hear how your project goes. Here’s my number/email.
Is there a way I can connect with you? Are you on social media?
Do you have Facebook or Instagram?
English grammar tips for small talk
Now let’s look at some useful grammar points and structures for small talk.
Grammar tip#1: Using the Present Perfect
If you’ve checked our article on the present perfect, you’ll remember that one of its frequent uses is when talking about experiences.
That’s a common structure we use when making casual small talk. Look at the following examples:
How long have you lived here?
Have you been here before?
Have you seen any good movies lately?
Grammar tip#2: Using tag questions
A tag question is a small question that is attached to the end of a sentence. We use tag questions to ask for confirmation or someone’s thoughts/opinions. Because a tag question turns a statement into a question, it’s a great way to start a conversation.
The trains here are never on time, are they?
It’s very windy today, isn’t it?
As seen in the examples above, if the statement is positive, the question tag will be negative:
She’s such a great speaker, isn’t she?
And if the sentence is negative, then the tag will be positive:
It hasn’t been very busy this week, has it?
Grammar tip#3: Using the Present continuous (or going to) for plans
When it comes to talking future plans, the most common structures are the present continuous and be + going to. The simple future (will) isn’t normally used in this context.
What are you doing for the holidays?
I’m meeting up with a friend tonight.
I’m going to catch up on some work this weekend.
Some bonus tips for small talk in English
Bonus tip #1: Listen and ask follow up questions
For example, if you ask: “What do you like to do in your free time?” and they mention a hobby that you don’t know much about, ask some questions to find out more.
This shows the person that you’re interested and it keeps the conversation natural and flowing.
But remember there needs to be a balance of questions and answers. Otherwise, it might feel like an interview instead of a casual conversation.
Bonus tip #2: Plan ahead
The more you practice small talk, the more confident you will feel to jump in. Start by going over the sample dialogues and expressions you’ve seen today and repeat them at home. Whenever possible, anticipate the social interactions you’re likely to be part of and rehearse some lines.
For example, I often used to talk to co-workers who traveled from the United States to visit our work site. So, I knew that I was going to ask them about their flight and hotel experiences:
How was your flight?
Did you catch up on some sleep?
I hope you enjoy your stay in Argentina!
How’s the hotel room? Do you like it?
You can reach out to me if there’s anything I can do for you.
In my case, practicing these expressions and becoming more comfortable with them was really helpful.
Bonus tip #3: Keep it light
Some topics will only lead to an undesirable heated conversation. So if you can, avoid bringing up discussions over religion, politics, money, death, and personal problems.
For some these points, it also depends on the context. If you're at a church, for example, of course it’s okay to talk about religion.
If you’re learning English, making small talk might be scary at first. But if you’ve noticed, none of the expressions we shared with you today are complicated or unusual. On the contrary, they’re simple sentences and if you practice them regularly, you’ll be able to remember them easily and get more comfortable with small talk in English.
Try not to worry too much about saying something wrong, because it’s only natural to make mistakes while learning. Instead, focus on practicing different scenarios and with time you’ll get more confident!
About the Writer
Sol is an English teacher and a self-professed grammar geek. As a writer for In English With Love, her mission is to create content that will help encourage and inspire English learners.