How to teach small talk
Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for the difficult skills of smoothly chatting when meeting people, starting phone calls, ending meetings, etc.
Most English for Specific Purposes teachers have a moment when they realise that the difficulty for their ESP students is not chairing meetings or writing technical documents, but rather chatting to their colleagues in the lift, having conversations with fellow attendees at conferences, etc. Such students sometimes even take a whole course on Social English, in which case all the teacher’s worksheets on describing business processes and negotiating phrases are useless. Luckily, small talk is surprisingly teachable, with a few phrases and tips making a huge difference in people’s ability to chat smoothly in all kinds of situations. I therefore spend at least a class or two on the topic of small talk with most of my students, and all my Business/ ESP students. This article gives lots of useful language and classroom activities for lessons on this point. There is also an e-book with over 100 pages of photocopiable small talk activities, including most of those mentioned here
The topic of small talk can be great for a first lesson, linking smoothly to the conversations that the teacher and students naturally have in the first class. It also ties in well with needs analysis questions on their use of English at work, in their free time, etc. Small talk can also be linked to:
- Starting and ending meetings, phone calls, teleconferences, etc (smoothly getting down to business, etc)
- Cultural differences (in small talk and then more generally)
- Different times/ tenses (with “How’s it going?”, “How have you been?”, “Did you have a good weekend?”, “Do you have any plans for the weekend?”, etc)
- Practice for speaking exams (FCE Speaking Part One, IELTS Speaking Part One, etc)
- Responding to people (sounding sympathetic, etc)
- Indirect questions/ Embedded questions (“Can I ask where you are from?” etc)
- Auxiliary verbs in tag questions, short answers and (yes/ no and/ or wh) questions (“It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?” etc)
- Describing your company and job
- Other Social English topics (making and responding to invitations, explaining foods to foreign guests, etc)
- Travel English (conversations with fellow passengers/ guests/ drinkers/ diners and chatty staff)
What students need to know about small talk in English
In order to be able to successfully take part in small talk in English, students will need to know:
- How to start and end small talk
- Good and bad small talk topics and questions
- Cultural differences in small talk
- The most common small talk questions that they might be asked and how to answer (responding to yes/ no questions without killing the conversation, etc)
- Politer forms of questions (“What brings you here?”, “And you are?”, “Could you tell me…?”, “I was wondering…”, etc)
- How to respond to questions that they don’t want to or can’t answer (“Actually, I don’t…”, “I’d rather not say, if you don’t mind”, etc)
- How to respond to people’s answers to small talk questions (responding to good and bad news with “That sounds awful”, etc)
- How to extend conversations (asking similar questions back, using tag questions, etc)
- Suitable intonation
- Small talk with different people who they know and don’t know (colleagues, fellow guests at a hotel, etc)
- Small talk in particular situations (at a trade fair, while eating dinner, etc)
Situations in which they might need to make small talk are almost infinite, including less obvious situations like at the beginning of teleconferences and at the end of phone calls. However, for other students who are less likely to use English outside class you might want to concentrate on questions, topics, etc which they will be able to use with their future teachers and classmates in class and/ or with fellow hotel guests, taxi drivers etc while on holiday.
After years of trying various metaphors and mnemonics, I have found that one of the most useful things to teach my students is to make a small talk conversation like a game of volleyball, meaning:
- Answering the question (= receiving the ball)
- Adding at least one more thing (= bouncing it between your team)
- Asking a related (but not identical) question back (= returning the ball)
This also helps give students the idea that English small talk conversations tend to consists of short turns, with who is speaking changing often (in contrast to the mini-presentations that small talk can sometimes be in other cultures).
Typical student problems with small talk
Small talk questions and other which are common but students are often not familiar with include (in alphabetical order):
- Are you from around here?
- Did you have any problems finding us?/ Did you have any trouble getting here?
- How are you coping with…?
- How are you getting on with…?/ How did you get on with…?
- (You said that you were going to…) How did… go?/ How did you get on (with…)?
- How has your day/ week/ visit/ trip/… been (so far)?
- (Long time no see.) How have you been?/ What have you been up to (since I last saw you/ we last met)?
- How’s business?
- How’s it going?/ How are things?/ How are you doing?/ How’s life (treating you)?
- How’s your hangover (now)?
- What brings you here (today)?/ What brings you to…?/ Are you here for/ to…?
- What do you do (for a living)?
- What exactly do you do?
- Where are you based?
- Whereabouts are you from?
- Who did you fly with?
- Who do you work for?
- That’s a shame./ That’s a pity.
They may also get mixed up between:
- Where do you live?/ Where are you staying?
- What do you do?/ How do you do?
- What do you do?/ What are you working on?
- Where are you from?/ Where have you come from (today)?
- How was your weekend?/ How has your week been?
- How was your journey?/ How was your trip?
Cultural differences they might be unfamiliar with include:
- The different meanings of “What’s up?” in British and American English
- The British complaining together about transport, weather etc as a way of bonding
- The use of indirect tactics to start conversation such as asking “Is this seat free?” and “Is this the right place for…?” (more important in the UK than America)
Other typical student problems with small talk include:
- Being too shy to start conversations
- Being too direct when starting conversations
- Being too direct when asking questions
- Asking about taboo topics
- Asking about topics that the other person might have nothing to say about (e.g. baseball if the other person is British or work when the other person is a student)
- Translating phrases from their own language rather than using the usual English version (saying “What is your company name?” rather than “Who do you work for?”, “It’s our first time of meeting” instead of “I don’t think we’ve met, have we?” etc)
- Answering the questions that they expected rather the actual questions that they were asked (e.g. imagining that the first question is always “How are you?” and so replying “I’m fine, thank you” even when that wasn’t suitable)
- Just waiting for questions and not asking questions back (making it more like an interview than a conversation)
- Answers which are too short or too long
- Always asking the same question back to the other person (overusing “How about you?”, etc)
- Not being able to smoothly transition between topics
- Not being able to smoothly end the small talk (letting the conversation go on until it reaches uncomfortable silence or ending the small talk too abruptly)
- Repeating/ overusing the same few phrases
- Direct phrases which are rude in most situations like “Why are you here?” (instead of “What brings you here?”) and “Mind your own business” (instead of “I’d rather not say”)
- Some typical small mistakes with fixed phrases like “Did you have any troubles getting here?” X and “I’m sorry hearing that” X
How to present and practise small talk in English
The easiest way of smoothly starting the topic of small talk is simply asking students a few questions about their lives in the first class and at the beginning and/ or end of subsequent classes. Most teachers do this naturally, but it can be exploited further by:
- Making sure that you ask students a range of questions (not just “How was your weekend?” in every lesson)
- Asking them questions that they are likely to be asked outside the class (e.g. “What do you do?” and “What exactly do you do?” rather than the easier but less common question “What’s your job?”)
- Presenting and then asking them to produce better answers (e.g. making sure that they say “Great” before “I went to Disneyland with my boyfriend and we didn’t have a row this time” if the question is “How was your weekend?”)
The obvious next step is to get students to ask the same or similar questions to each other and/ or to the teacher. I tend to do this by giving them a list of good and bad small talk questions and/ or topics and asking them to carefully choose the most suitable to ask each other (given their real situation or imagining that they are in the roleplay situation that I have explained).
With larger classes, the smoothest start to this topic is probably giving out a blank form with spaces to fill in as they ask their partner about their jobs, studies, language learning experience, etc. I then give them a list of typical small talk questions that they could use to find out more about those topics. This activity can be combined with needs analysis questions and topics if you want to find out more about why they are studying English, their weak points etc during the same stage.
After students ask me about any questions that they couldn’t understand or couldn’t imagine how to answer, we can then move onto discussing taboo topics, how to respond to tricky questions, how to improve on less than perfect small talk conversations, etc, perhaps with related activities below.
Small talk topics and questions card games
Prepare a pack of cards with topics and/ or question starters like “free time”, “How was…?” and “What do…?” on them. Students take a card and take turns asking and answering as many suitable questions on that topic or using those words as they can think of until you tell them to move onto another card or one person gives up. They then discuss which of those questions would be best in real-life small talk.
The games can be played with the cards face down on the table, face up on the table or dealt out. With the variations where students can see the cards, this activity also works well with a few unsuitable topics and perhaps question starters that students should try to avoid.
For practice of a whole conversation with the same cards, I sometimes get students to choose and lay out a set of five or six cards and then try to use them smoothly in one small talk conversation. For extra challenge, you can also ask them to do the speaking activity in the same order as they have laid the cards on the table e.g. trying to smoothly switch from “work” to “travel” and then “hometown/ local area” to match the three cards that they laid out (and then smoothly finish the conversation).
Taboo topics small talk challenge
Give students some small talk questions or topics. Students work in small groups give those things a number of points between 1 for “easy to use with almost everyone” to 5 for “(almost) taboo”. They then take turns asking for questions with a particular number of points, getting those points if they (adequately) answer the question but getting no points if they refuse to answer (by saying “I’m afraid I don’t really want to go into that”, “Never you mind!”, etc).
You can also play the same game with a dice deciding how challenging a question they ask each other each time, with 1 for the easiest topic or question and 5 for the most difficult, with 6 being “free choice”.
Small talk roleplays
Once students have asked each other all the most suitable questions about the most suitable topics, the only thing left is for them to roleplay other situations – and in fact this can be more useful practice than the real but rather unusual situation of communicating in a classroom. Things that they can roleplay include:
- talking to different people (business contacts, fellow guests at a hotel, etc)
- talking to people in different situations (at a bus stop, on a plane, etc)
- trying to achieve particular things during the conversation (using a particular phrase, covering a particular topic, etc)
- talking for a particular length of time
- covering a particular number of topics
- dealing with difficult small talk situations (not wanting to talk about some particular topics, one person being uncommunicative)
- communicating in different ways (face to face, on the phone, etc).
Which roleplays students do can be decided by taking cards, choosing numbers from the board or a worksheet (perhaps at random), rolling a dice, or flipping a coin.
Small talk strangers on the train
Students roleplay small talk conversations, e.g. meeting strangers on a train (as the name of this game suggests) or meeting an old uni friend after a long time. They choose or are given words, phrases, sentences or topics that they must use naturally during the conversation. When the conversation finishes, they all have to try to guess what things their partner(s) had to slip into the conversation. To make it more difficult to guess, they should make sure that the things are smoothly slipped into the conversation and that they use many other phrases, topics, etc to provide trick answers.
Small talk dice games
Dice can be used to decide:
- How long the conversation is
- How many topics they should cover
- Who they are meeting
- Where they are meeting
- How often they have met before (“2 = You have met once before”, etc)
- What topics they should include (“4 = Friends and family”, etc)
- What difficult situations they have to deal with (“3 = You are chatting somewhere that is very noisy”, etc)
- What good small talk tactics they should concentrate on (“4 = Make sure that you speak for exactly the same amount of time as each other”, etc)
- How they are communicating (by telephone, etc)
- What words, phrases, questions or sentences they should make sure they use during the conversation
Small talk meeting criteria board game
Make a board game with small talk topics, situations, key words to use, etc in each square. Put students in groups of three or four with one board per group. Students take turns roleplaying small talk including the thing written in that square. Their partners then rate their performance to decide how many squares they can move. This can just be a number of points from “1 = just about okay” to “5 = perfect”. However, to make them think more about what makes good small talk, I prefer to give them criteria to judge their partners by. For example, they could get one point each for:
- Smooth starting
- Avoided rude and taboo topics and questions
- Responded appropriately to what the other person said
- Little or no silence
- Spoke 50/50
- Smooth moving between topics and/ or smooth ending
They can then move between one and six squares depending on how many criteria their partners decided they met during that roleplay conversation. Note that the mark is just for the person whose turn it is, not for their roleplay conversation partner. The next person then does that same thing. The winner is the first person to get all the way around the board or the person who is ahead when the teacher stops the game.
Small talk meeting criteria card game
The meeting criteria game above can also be played with a pack of cards. Students are given two cards each. One student chooses one of their cards to decide what situation they are in, who they are speaking to, how they are communicating, etc during their roleplay, and places it face-up on the table. After roleplaying that situation, their partners give them a number of points based on how well they did or how many criteria they met. Then they can take that many extra cards from the pack. Play passes to the next person. When their turn comes around again, they can choose one card from all the ones in their hand (the ones they took in the last round plus the card or cards left from before). The game continues until all the cards have been taken from the pack, with the winner being the person with most cards. They can then discuss how they could deal with the cards that they chose not to use during the game, e.g. how to speak to a fellow guest at a hotel.
Small talk pairwork worksheets
Good activities with different Student A and Student B worksheets include:
- Students working out which phrase is better/ correct (e.g. “It’s a fine day” on Student A’s worksheet or “Lovely day, isn’t it?” on Student B’s worksheet)
- Matching the question or phrase on one worksheet with the response on the other worksheet (“Do you have any plans for the weekend?” on the first worksheet with “Not really, but I might go and see the new Batman movie” on the second)
To add more speaking and challenge, all the activities should be done without students showing their worksheets to each other. This works best if there is a whole conversation and students have to first find the differences between the conversations and then work out which option is best in each place where they are different. However, it also works fine with just a list of sentences that are all different on the two worksheets.
Improving the small talk
Problems that students can be asked to find and improve on in small talk conversations include:
- Questions that are too direct and/ or taboo
- Questions and answers that don’t match
- Answers that are too short or too long
- Not responding to what people say
- Starting or ending that is too sudden
- Not taking an equal part in the conversation
- Small mistakes with questions and responses (“How’s your business?” X, etc)
- Particular phrases which are rude in English (“Why are you here?” etc)
Particularly with mistakes that occur in small parts of the conversation such as particularly unsuitable phrases or typical grammar mistakes, students can correct these mistakes in the way explained in pairwork above. Alternatively, they can just look at conversations together and try to rewrite them. They could then make similarly bad conversations for other groups to try to improve.
Small talk jigsaws
Students work together to put cards together to make a nice rectangle shape. Things that can be split into different cards and then put together by the students include:
- Small talk questions (“How is your project + going?” etc)
- Responses (“I’m an + architect” etc)
- Responses to responses (“I’m sorry to + hear that” etc)
- Questions and responses (“Where are you from?” + “Seaford. It’s a small town near Brighton” etc)
- Responses and responses to those responses (“Terrible. It rained non-stop” + “That’s a real shame”, etc)
- Questions, responses, and responses to those responses
- Questions and a few possible responses (“How’s work?” + “Really busy”/ “Fairly busy”/ “Not so busy”, etc)
You could also make a whole conversation into a jigsaw activity by splitting it between turns (“Hi John. How’s it going?”/ “Pretty good. I just got back from the Canaries. How about you? Did you get away anywhere?” etc) or halfway through phrases (“That’s too” / “bad. What happened?” “Well, I had to spend the whole of Sunday…”)
Putting the jigsaw back together is more challenging for students if you give them two dialogues mixed up. In this case they have to divide the cards up and then put each dialogue in order, something which is also useful for showing the differences between small talk in different situations. For example, if you have one dialogue between people who are meeting for the first time and another dialogue between people are good friends, students can split the phrases into the two kinds, and then put them in order. After checking that, they can then try to remember suitable phrases for each situation after they put them in order.
After students have completed the conversations and checked their answers, students could also take turns turning over the cards and trying to remember all the hidden bits in a kind of memory game.
Small talk longer phrases
This is a slightly more complex version of the jigsaw games above. Students match endings and beginnings to make basic questions, responses and responses to responses like “What + do you do?” and “Not + bad”. To check and expand on their answers, they then add extra words to the middle to make longer (and often more suitable) phrases like “What + exactly + do you do?” and “Not + too+ bad”.
Small talk dominoes
The simpler jigsaw activities above can also be set up as a kind of dominoes game with the ending of one phrase on the left-hand side of each card and the beginning of another phrase on the right. For instance, the first three cards could say “work?/ Not” “so busy./ How about” “you?/ Same ole same”. After working together to put all the cards into a big circle, students can play an actual game of dominoes by taking turns trying to put a matching card down and taking more cards if they can’t.
Small talk cultural differences and useful phrases
Students read descriptions of small talk in countries such as the UK and USA and mark any sentences which they know to be the same in other countries that they know about such as their own with the first letter of that country. For example, they could write “S” for “Spain” next to the statement “People often talk about the weather – Horrible weather, isn’t it?/ How’s the weather now over there?” if they think that the same statement is true about Spain. Note that the example phrases don’t need to be the same in the country they write the first letter of, just the general statement about small talk habits. However, when they have finished, they are tested on their memory of the English phrases that were given to illustrate each point in order to prepare them for English small talk. For example, they should write “Horrible weather, isn’t it?” etc next to the description “People often talk about the weather” without looking at the previous worksheet.
Small talk disappearing text memory game
Each small talk chat is obviously different, but such conversations do tend to be full of typical questions and responses that are well worth memorising, preferably as part of a conversation that can also give students a model of how to communicate (e.g. in the “volleyball style” that is explained above). The best way of doing this is with a Disappearing Text game. Students take turns covering or turning over more and more of the model conversation, reading out the whole thing including the missing parts each time. This continues until they can repeat the whole conversation without seeing any of it or until they have all forgotten too much of it. With a short conversation this can be done one word disappearing each time. With longer conversations, a whole line in the conversation can disappear each time, but in this case you will need to allow other things which fit but weren’t in the original conversation.
Small talk tense review
Students ask and answer questions that are in the target tense of the lesson or that are designed to produce the target form in the answer, e.g. “How was your holiday?” and “What have you been up to?” for Past Simple. Then try to put the right tenses back into gapped versions of the questions and/ or model answers (“How _______ your holiday?”, “Really good. I ______ out for drinks with some old school friends. How about you?”, etc) This works for:
- Present Simple and/ or Present Continuous
- Past Simple and/ or Present Perfect
- a range of different future forms (“would like”, “planning to”, “will”, etc)
Small talk key words activities
Choose key words for the small talk questions and responses that you want to practise such as “been” for “How have you been?” and “bad” for “Not (so) bad”. These key words can be used to help students brainstorm suitable phrases, and/or they can be used during small talk roleplays by letting them discard the cards as they manage to use the words in appropriate ways during the conversation.
Small talk brainstorming
Things related to small talk that students can usefully brainstorm include:
- Questions starting with a particular stem (“How was…?” questions, etc)
- Suitable questions on one topic
- Suitable responses to a question
- Questions that could get a particular response
- Phrases with one particular function (“Responding to bad news” etc)
As mentioned above, it can be useful to give students key words to help with this.