How to teach starting and ending conversations in English
Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for the tricky beginnings and endings of conversations.
Probably due to lack of space and not wanting to repeat themselves, textbooks usually provide few good models of how to start and end conversations, and the same is true of English that students come across outside class such as novels and movies. It is therefore important to teach this vital skill without which a conversation can never start and might never end.
This article shows how to make sure that students can smoothly start and finish conversations, and how they can transition to the meetings language, telephoning phrases, making enquiries etc that come in between and are more often on the syllabus. Photocopiable versions of many of these activities are available at https://www.usingenglish.com/e-books/social-english/. There are also articles on this site on related topics like greetings/ saying hello and goodbye, small talk, meeting people, and social English more generally.
What students need to know about starting and ending conversations
Some English speakers might be happy to start a conversation with “Hi, I’m Randy” and an outstretched hand, but this is far from standard, almost taboo in some English-speaking countries such as the UK, and too easy to be worth any class time. It is therefore well worth teaching students to at least recognise and know how to respond to a more indirect approach. Suitably indirect starters for meeting someone for the first time include:
- Is this the right place for the Elementary class?
- Is this the right bus for Hampton Wick?
- Is anyone sitting here?/ Is this seat free?
- Do you know what time the bus comes?
- Wow, it’s really busy/ hot/ crowded/…, isn’t it?
- I don’t think we’ve met, have we?/ I don’t think we’ve been introduced.
There are also “Can I introduce myself?” and “I should probably introduce myself”, but these are mainly for situations where it would be natural to introduce yourself such as networking parties and cross-team work events.
With people who you know the names of but have never met, typical phrases include:
- You must be John.
- Good morning. I’m supposed to meet John Smith./ I have an appointment with John Smith./ I’m here to meet John Smith. (Is that you, by any chance?/ I’m guessing that’s you.)
- Are you John (Smith)?
With people you’ve met, there might also be some times when you want to use more indirect phrases, for example if it was just once and/ or a long time ago, including:
- (John?) I don’t know if you remember me, but…
- (Sorry.) You probably don’t remember me, but…
- It’s John, isn’t it? I’m… We met…
With old friends there is of course no need to be indirect, and students can roleplay that with friendly phrases which they probably already know like “Hi John. Long time no see” and “Hi Jane. Great to see you again”.
Other possible steps after the greeting and before small talk include welcoming (“Welcome back”) and mentioning past contact (“Thanks for your email yesterday”, “Thanks again for taking me out for dinner last week”, etc). Exchanging and talking about business cards (“Here’s my business card”, “Perhaps we should exchange business cards”, etc) doesn’t have to come this early in British and American culture, but if can often come before small talk. The same is true of offers such as giving drinks (“Tea or coffee?”), taking people’s coats(“Shall I take that for you?” and guiding them to other rooms (“This way please”).
All of these phrases and most of their responses are quite fixed, so students will need to be able to memorise both the phrases and one or two typical responses. The pattern after “My name’s…” is also something quite fixed that students should get used to doing the same way each time, namely:
- “My name’s…”
- “Nice to meet you, (name). I’m…”
- “Nice to meet you too, (name). Wh…?”
with “Wh…?” representing moving into small talk.
There is another whole article on this website on small talk, but suitable questions after the indirect starters like “Is anyone sitting here?” above include:
- Is this your first time here in…?
- It’s really… today/ here, isn’t it?
- Where are you going to?/ How far are you going?/ Where are you getting off?
- What brings you here (today)?
- Questions about other people like “How do you know (name of the host)?”
In situations where you have arranged to meet and so start with phrases like “You must be John”, perhaps the most common and easiest small talk topic is travel. Suitable questions include “Did you have any trouble getting here?”, “Did you have any problems finding us?”, “How was the traffic?” and “Was the map that I sent okay?”
With people who you know well, it’s normal to start with a general question like “How’s it going?”/ “How are things?”/ “How are you doing?”/ “How’s life (treating you)?” or “How have you been (since we last met)?”, but we sometimes start with more specific ones like “How was your trip to…?”
After some small talk, students will need to be able to transition into something else such as getting down to business. In situations where they clearly need something such as phone calls or walking up to someone’s desk, it’s common to end the small talk with something fairly short and direct like “So, what can do for you (today)?” or “So, how can I help you, Ms Jones?” In other situations it can seem like you had no real interest in the small talk if you end it so suddenly. The first tip is to choose the right moment to end the small talk, usually meaning when the other person answers your question but doesn’t ask another one back, and/ or after two or three small talk questions each.
The longest and therefore smoothest phrases for ending the small talk include a reaction to what they just said, a transitions expression, something nice about the conversation so far, a reason for ending the small talk, a suggestion to move on, and then something to get a reaction such as a tag question. Typical examples include:
- (Great. Congratulations.) Okay then, you must tell me more about that later, but we have to be out of this room by twelve, so let’s get down to business, shall we?
- (That’s a pity. I’m sorry to hear that). So, I’d love to chat more, but we have a lot to get through, so shall we get down to business, if you don’t mind?
Some English speakers are so keen on smooth transitions that they try to link directly from the small talk to the next topic with phrases like “I’m glad you mentioned that, because…” and “That brings me onto…”. However, this is very difficult to do well even for native speakers and tends to extend the small talk beyond its useful length, so it’s probably not something that you need to teach students how to do, unless they attempt it and need phrases like these to do it better.
Smooth expressions for ending the whole conversation are very similar to transitions phrases, but with mentioning future contact in place of suggestions to move on, as in:
- Well, it’s been really nice talking to you, but I need to go to a few more booths today, so I’ll email you later, if that’s okay.
- Okay, this has been really interesting, but this is my stop, so I hope we bump into each other again soon!
To end more serious, transactional conversations, the best approach is usually to check that the other person has finished, with expressions like:
- So, is there anything else that we need to discuss (before we finish)?
- So, can I help you with anything else?
The normal response is “No, I think that’s all (for now), thanks”, but if they reply with “Actually, there was just one more thing”, you can just go back to asking “So, can I help you with anything else?” after dealing with that point. You can also get there without waiting for the question with phrases like “So, I think we’ve covered everything” and “Thanks, I think that’s answered all my questions”.
Especially in conversations which are mainly small talk, we often use a variation on the “Nice to meet you” etc at the beginning of the conversation such as “(It was) nice meeting you” for the first meeting and “It was great to see you again” for meeting again.
In some situations you might want to thank the other person with “Thanks, that has been really useful” or “Thank you, that was very productive”, but my students tend to overuse this, including thanking the other person for small talk! As well as or instead of that, we almost always mention future contact with phrases like:
- As I said, I’ll email you later today.
- Looking forward to hearing from you.
- I look forward to doing business with you again.
- See you tomorrow.
The future is also a common topic in small talk at the end, with questions like:
- Are you finished for today?
- Do you have to go straight back to your office?
- Do you have many more meetings today?
- Do you have any plans for this weekend?
Similarly, good wishes for the future are common with phrases like:
- Have a good weekend.
- Good luck with your presentation.
There are also small talk questions that tend to go at the end of conversations such as “Do you have any plans for the (long) weekend/ this evening?”, “Do you have to go straight back to your office?”, “How long are you here for?”, “Do you have (m)any more meetings today?” and “Are you finished for today?”
We then usually finally finish with a parting greeting such as “Bye” or “Goodbye”, but some future contact and good wishes phrases like “See ya” and “Take care” don’t need anything afterwards.
Typical problems with starting and ending conversations
Most of my students use “Can I introduce myself?” the first time they are asked to roleplay meeting someone for the first time, despite rarely being so direct in their own language. Such students just need to hear and memorise the typical indirect starter phrases and responses above. The main problem is then just getting mixed up between “Is this seat free?” “Yes, please go ahead.” and “Is anyone sitting here?” “No, please go ahead.”, but as long as they always use “Please go ahead” they should be able to be understood even if they get their yes and no mixed up.
When it comes to people who they know the names of but have never met, there are some subtle differences that can be confusing. “You must be John” means I basically know who you are but we’ve never met, for example if the receptionist has called me down to the ground floor and you are the only person standing in the lobby. “Are you John?” shows more actual doubt, for example when meeting a blind date. In movies you are more likely to hear just “John?”, but this is too casual for more situations that students are likely to be in, or is used for when you last met someone a long time ago.
Even native speakers mix up “Nice to meet you” and “Nice to see you again”, but I think most would agree that “Nice to meet you again” is a strange mix. I therefore teach students the nice clear rule that “meet” means the first time and “see” means again.
The rules are much less clear with electronic communication, but I’d say “Nice to meet you” if we can see each other on video, but “Nice to speak to you” if it’s just a voice. In emailing the closest equivalent is just “Thank you for your email”, but in instant messaging almost anything is okay.
I think most students instinctively know that “What’s your name?” is rude, but years of answering that question since primary school might still mean that they forget to say “Can I have your name?” etc instead. Most students are not aware of the useful phrases “And you are?”, as in “You must be John” “That right. And you are?”
Typical mistakes with small talk are dealt with more thoroughly in my article on the topic, but near the beginning of the conversation they can include getting straight to too personal questions like “Where are you from?”, using impolite versions of typical questions such as “Why are you here?” (instead of “What brings you here?”), and using casual “How…?” questions like “How are you doing?” when meeting people for the first time.
The opposite problem is overusing the semi-formal question “How are you?” and so only getting “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” as an answer, which doesn’t really start the small talk very well. Instead, they should use more specific or more friendly versions like “How was your weekend?” and “How’s it going?” whenever they are not too casual for the situation.
Small talk can then tend to be too short or too long, and end too suddenly. For example, students may go straight from “Not too good. I broke my leg” to “Anyway, the reason why I called this meeting is…” without even a conversational reaction such as “That’s too bad”. Perhaps the worst is suddenly hitting the other person with “Thanks for coming”, as in English this has the hidden meaning “It’s time to leave now” (as seen in endless comedy sketches of terrible auditions).
When it comes to transitioning, the first words have some subtle differences which very few students are aware of. The main difference is in how soft or dynamic they are. A possible ranking, with the softest top, is:
- Well (then)
- Okay then
Students should be advised to generally use the softer ones, unless there is a special need to be dynamic. “Anyway…” is slightly different as it can be soft but often has the meaning of getting back on topic when someone has gone off topic, so can be rude if used wrongly. I therefore recommend avoiding “anyway” for this purpose.
In the other steps for smoothly ending, perhaps the most common mistake is giving very general reasons for ending the small talk/ conversation such as “I have something to do” and “I have to go somewhere”. To English speakers this can sound like it’s a lie, you can’t be bothered explaining what you have to do, or you are doing something top secret. Instead, in English it’s the longer and more specific the better, as in “I have to meet my boss in the other building in 20 minutes”.
Even some native speakers say “Nice to meet you” at the end when they mean “It was nice to meet you”/ “(It was) nice meeting you”.
How to present starting and ending conversations
To present this language through reading or listening texts, initial comprehension questions could be:
- Are they meeting for the first time or again?
- Where are they?
- Who are they?/ What is their relationship?
- Were the starting and ending smooth?/ Which conversation had a smoother starting and/ or ending?
They can then analyse the conversations for suitable initial phrases, small talk questions, transitions phrases, responses, etc, for example by matching phrases and responses and then listening again to check.
Matching which response goes with which phrase is usually quite easy even for students studying this topic for the first time, so you might be able to use a cut-up jigsaw text in the initial presentation phrase. When the focus is on starting and ending communication, I usually miss out the middle of the communication such as the negotiating part and just replace it with a big card that says “Body of the communication”. For a more challenging jigsaw task, you can mix in similar phrases for starting and ending an email and/ or a phone call (perhaps with “Body of the email/ call” in the middle).
Another kind of jigsaw works really well for presenting transitions language. Put at least four phrases like “Okay then, you must tell me more about that later, but I know you are really busy, so why don’t we have a look at the agenda, if that’s okay with you” in a table with seven columns and cut it into cards. Ask students to put phrases together and put similar parts above each other (e.g. “Well” above “Okay then”) to make a rectangle the size and shape of the original worksheet.
Another more fun way of presenting the language is with the Starting and Ending Conversations Simplest Responses game, in which students raise a card saying “Starting” or a card saying “Ending” depending on what they hear. This should start with easy to spot ones like “You must be John” and “Long time no see”, then move onto trickier ones that they might not be able to guess without help like “Nice meeting you”.
The jigsaw text and simplest responses games can also be used as very easy controlled practice stages.
How to practise starting and ending conversations
Good and bad starting and ending conversations activities
Instead of or after holding up “Starting” and “Ending” cards, students can also hold up cards to indicate which is the best phrase, response, etc. For example, if you give them cards saying “A” and “B”, they can hold one up each time to represent if the first or second phrase that they hear is better. This can also be done without cards, with students listening for and shouting out or writing down if phrase A, B, C, etc is best. If you want to present lots of good phrases, they can also do the opposite of listening for which one is inappropriate, e.g. shouting out “B” if A and C are both okay.
Starting and ending conversations meeting criteria games
Put students in groups of three or four. Two people roleplay a conversation including the beginning and ending (but maybe missing out the ending). The other student(s) give them one point for each of the criteria they met such as “Smooth starting”, “Suitably direct or indirect”, “The right meeting for the first time or again phrase”, “Suitable small talk questions”, “The right amount of small talk”, “Smoothly ended the small talk”, “Smoothly ended the conversation” and “Mentioned future contact”. They could simply get one point for each of the criteria that they met, or this could be more integrated into the game by each point meaning moving one square around a board or meaning one more roleplay card that they can choose from when it is next their turn.
Starting and ending conversations dice games
A dice can decide:
- Which of six starting conversations situations they should roleplay
- The starting phrase for the conversation
- The level of formality/ How well they know each other
- How many small talk questions they should ask
- How long the small talk should be
- How long it is since they last met
- What they should transition to after the small talk
- Which ending phrase they should include
Starting and ending conversations problem roleplays
Adding complications to their roleplays can make speaking more interesting, and also give more intensive practice of particularly important skills such as making smooth transitions. Possibilities for tricky roleplays include:
- The other person doesn’t remember you
- The other person replies to your first question with something short and doesn’t ask a question back
- One person keeps trying to extend the small talk and not transition to getting down to business etc
- A very short conversation (without being rude)
- Needing to extend the conversation (because the lift doesn’t come, etc)
Starting and ending conversations key words card game
As students roleplay meeting people and ending conversations, they try to use key words on their cards like “must” (for “You must be John”, etc), “seat” (for “Is this seat free?”) and “talk” (for “I’d love to talk more, but…”, etc). Their partners can stop them discarding the key word card if they used it in the wrong kind of phrase, didn’t time using it well, etc, but other phrases apart from those you studied are also fine.
This works best if you ask them to take turns making up situations to roleplay, thinking about what kind of conversation it will be easiest to us those words in.
Starting and ending conversations functions card game
Students try to do the things written on their cards with different phrases to what anyone has said before in order to be able to discard cards saying “Smooth starting”, “Talking about names”, “Mentioning other people”, “Talking about business cards”, “Starting conversations small talk question”, “Request”, “Offer”, “Smoothly ending the small talk”, “Mentioning future contact”, “Good wishes for the future”, etc.
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