Imagine entering a meeting room, but instead of all six invitees, you’re just the second person to arrive. Now, there are only the two of you and you need to wait for the other four people to turn up before you can even start the meeting. It's an uncomfortable moment where your first instinct is to pull out your phone and pretend to be busy, right?

In this post you'll learn how to "not pull out your phone and pretend to be busy" and turn this dreaded moment into a somewhat fruitful human experience!

'Small talk' is the light, informal conversation that usually comes before a serious discussion. And although talking about trivial things may not be your thing, it's a useful tool to:

  • kill time
  • ease the tension
  • establish rapport
  • warm up the audience
  • or as a networking tool to build contacts

So here we go: Tips & phrases on how to small talk in English, especially at work.

Small Talk at Work like a Pro: Tips & phrases when English is your Second Language

1. Put your phone away!

Yes! Your phone is your comfort zone, and it’s natural to pull it out in uncomfortable social situations. Definitely when you want to avoid speaking in English! But put it away! A little small talk with your colleague can go a long way in building rapport. You never know, you may discover something you’d never thought of and you may actually find an ally. Don’t waste these few minutes of opportunity away!

2. Break the ice!

Initiate the conversation with:

  • Hello, I don’t think we’ve met
  • Hi, It’s Juan, isn’t it?
  • How are things?
  • Long time no see!
  • Hi, how are you doing? It’s good to see you!
  • How was your weekend?
  • Anything new going on?
  • What have you been up to?
  • Are you still…?

3. Great start! But what next? What do we talk about?

A few minutes of time is perfect to catch up on what happened in the game the previous night, or how great the weather is. You can talk about an uncontroversial news story, current events and even ask questions about the other person, such as his hometown or her job profile.

  • How long have you worked as a [insert job title]?
  • Did you watch the game last night?
  • It’s been raining all week, how terrible!
  • Are you originally from here?

Remember, small talk need not be boring! Here's a quote to live by:

“Everyone that you'll ever met will know someone that you won't”

Bill Nye

4. Definitely AVOID these topics, unless you want an awkward silence. Or worse: a heated discussion!

Small talk is meant to be polite conversation, so if you think someone has gained weight, or someone looks tired, it’s best kept to yourself than to offend the other person! Also, if you have some juicy office gossip, it’s wise not to spill the beans (i.e. give our secret information). Grim topics such as death or ill health can cause uneasiness and unnecessary awkwardness. And bringing up politics & religion can be downright controversial!

5. Keep the conversation flowing with follow up questions, especially open ended ones

The best way to maintain a flow in a conversation is to ask follow up questions. People love talking about themselves! (And this is also a good way to avoid talking about yourself, if that makes you uncomfortable!) So if they tell you that they’re from a certain small town, make sure to ask something about it. If someone tells you they went out to a restaurant the previous night, ask how the experience was and would they recommend the place. If they talk about a recent trip, ask where do they plan to go next.

Ask open ended questions that would evoke a longer, more rounded answer. They would definitely do better to maintain the flow than close ended questions that evoke nothing more than a ‘yes’ or ’no’.

  • Do you mind me asking…?
  • So what did you do?
  • What did she say?
  • Go on.
  • Oh?
  • So how did you…?

6. 'Hmm's & ‘really's to show you’re listening!

You don’t always have to respond with full sentences and by asking questions. Meaningful “Hmm’s" & “really?”s can do the trick to show that you're listening, and to keep the other person going!

7. What if you didn’t understand what they said?

Ask them to repeat of course!

  • Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that
  • Could you please repeat that last part?
  • Did you say ….?
  • Can you slow it down a bit, please?

8. The magic of “ANYWAY”, to change the topic

Start with “anyway” or “by the way” to change the topic, or to get back to the previous topic.

  • Anyway, what have you been up to?
  • Anyway, did you watch the match last night?
  • By the way, did you know about….?

9. Responding & giving an opinion:

Well, nobody likes people monopolising the conversation. But your opinions are important and you must feel free to express yourself!

  • Frankly speaking, ...
  • Well, to be honest with you,..
  • Can’t argue with that.
  • That’s a good question.

10. And finally: a graceful exit strategy

This is as important than initiating small talk! Signalling the end would mean moving on the meeting that you're really there for.

  • See you later!
  • See you around!
  • It’s been nice talking to you
  • We’ll catch up later!
  • So let’s begin (the meeting)

Here's an interesting Ted Talk by Celeste Headlee, a radio host, who brings us her years of experience of interviewing people. What makes for a good conversation? Listen to her 10 Ways to have a better conversation: (I especially love Rule #5: "If you don't know, say you don't know")

You may also be interested in:

👉10 Steps to Skyrocket your Listening Skills with Short Videos (+7 video recommendations)

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