Lots of Tips for Small Talk

By Jacqueline Schaalje


Many of my students who come to me to practise their speaking tell me their problem is not with professional presentations. They are an ace explaining their job in professional language. They know all the jargon, the special words that are used in their field.

Where is their problem? They’re afraid of small talk.

Yet they know it may be just as, or even more important, than all their professional language.

There are three reasons you might be nervous about small talk:

1 Maybe you don’t know what to talk/ask about.

2 You don’t know how to ask questions.

3 You don’t know the exact phrases.

Okay, I’m not going to discuss asking questions here. You could learn about that in other articles, such as here and here.

But let’s talk about the other two subjects.

1 What can you talk about with a business contact?

Well, you should use common sense here. It depends on how well you know your business contact. If you know they have a family, you can ask about their family. This is always a popular topic. If you’re not sure they have a family or not, better not to start going into this. In Anglo-Saxon culture it’s considered rude to assume that everybody has a family (up to a third of people in western countries now remain single all their lives!), so maybe choose another subject.

So if you can’t talk about family and you don’t want to discuss work (boring!), what can you talk about? (By the way, many people will insist on talking about work anyway, even if you start talking about food. Those are the kind of people who are always thinking of their jobs. You probably know a couple of people who are like that.)

Here are some ideas to help you with smooth conversation:

Subjects for Small Talk


How was your flight?

What did you do on your flight (sleep, talk with your neighbour, read)?

How do you travel to work?

Do you often take the bus?

How is the public transport in your town/city?

Have you tried the double-decker bus/pedalo on the lake/canoeing on the river?

How long does it take you to reach your office?

Do people bike a lot where you live? Do you have designated bicycle paths?

Hobbies and interests:

This is a great subject as there is so much you can say about it:

Do you have any hobbies?

Are you into opera/drawing/playing chess?

What do you think about this music?

Do you have time to read books?

Do you prefer reading a newspaper on the internet or on your phone?

Do you use social media a lot?

What’s your favourite sport?

Is there an athlete you admire?

What are popular sports in your country?

Is there a club you are a fan of?

Do you use a lot of your time to clean your home?

Food & Drink

Another much-appreciated subject.

Do you cook every day?

What do you prefer: sweet or salty food?

Do you have any chocolate cravings? What do you do when you have them?

Do people drink a lot where you live?

What are some popular foods/drinks in your country?

At what time of day do you eat a hot meal?

Do you often go to a restaurant?

Do people visit the pubs after work where you live?

Are there any foods you dislike?


As long as you don’t get into theological (religious) questions, this can be a fine topic too.

Do you celebrate any holidays?

How do you celebrate … {name of holiday in contact’s country}?

What’s your favourite holiday dish?

Do you have any typical family holidays in your country?

Is there any holiday custom you think is slightly ridiculous or old-fashioned?


What’s your town/city like?

Are there many facilities in your neighbourhood?

Are there any green areas where you live?

How are the schools in your town?

Does your municipality do anything to keep your neighbourhood clean and unpolluted?

Do you like to go to the shops a lot?

Is there an outdoor market? What is some of the produce they sell there?

How do people spend their time after work in the area where you live?

Now you’ve got plenty of ideas for small talk, I think. If it turns out that you both like movies, you could get into that subject into more depth (= go deeper). You will have a good time together and your bond will become stronger after the meeting.

friends3Luca Sartoni

Building Relationships through Small Talk

Remember that the aim of the small talk is to show your interest in the other person and to build a relationship with him/her. Having good contact with your business partner is more fun and it’s also good for business, as people prefer to buy from people who are friendly and who are similar to them.

I actually have a statistic about this! Yes!

Here it is:

The probability of selling to an existing customer is 60 – 70%. The probability of selling to a new prospect is 5-20% – Marketing Metrics.

Imagine if you’re trying to sell your product and you are in regular contact with a customer. Every time they hear from you they are reminded that they can buy from you. If your offer is attractive, they will buy from you all the time.

But wise and successful business people will also invest time in other people not when or because they want to sell something. If you’ve got some contacts in the business, you will hear more stories and hear more ideas which could help you in your own business/job. You will grow together. You will become successful together.

friendship2Dani Vázquez

Well, is it all about trust and honesty? Not only. 

Meaningful Engagement

According to some research I’ve read, building relationships requires many skills. It’s not only about trust or friendliness, but a mix. You need to meaningfully engage with another person. The best way to get to know each other, other than playing golf, is to talk. With some people you won’t have any click. Don’t waste your time on those. With others, you will just be loose acquaintances.

But with 3 or 4 people, who are not your partner and not your best friend, you will share many interests and you listen when they talk. They will help you and you will help them. It’s worth investing in those people. Invest your time and effort, and one day you will feel that you got something back for it.

Showing Interest by Mumbling Something or Making a Sound

Your making some noises during small talk will be appreciated – if you make them at the right times. This is an easy way to show interest in what this other person is saying.

Say the following words:


Oh yeah?


Is it/Does it?/Do you??Did you?/Were you? etc.





Unbelievable./You don’t say.

So sorry to hear it.

Must have been hard.

I see./I fully comprehend./Of course, I understand.

Oh dear.

Goodness me.

I believe you.

I can imagine.

Sounds interesting.

How exciting./Great./Nice.

Sounds you can make:






Don’t say OK all the time. You may think you sound interested, but OK in English sounds as if you’re a little bit bored.

Same problem with saying: Right. This sounds as if you’re impatient to move to the next subject.

What’s wrong with saying: “well”? Well, it can sound a bit doubtful or critical. So you could use that with your friends, but with business relations you want to sound positive, so I’d recommend you don’t just say well when they tell you something.

A final tip about mumbling and sounds: The real conversation artist (That’s you!) will make a variety of sounds and mumblings. Don’t say “nice” all the time, or your business partner will suspect you’re not very intelligent.

2 Finding the Right Phrases in Small Talk

I’d also promised you to write something about using the appropriate phrases in conversation. Well, there are lots of possible situations, but here is an exercise: Match the sentences and their answers.


I’ll give you ten sentences that people will tell you.

What do you answer? Click here to do this quiz online. 

Write the letter of the correct answer.

Here is a list of the possible answers:

A I hope it goes well for you.

B Nothing serious, I hope.

C You poor thing.

D Lucky you. How long are you going for?

E Congratulations! That’s good news.

F What a pity. Some other time perhaps.

G Cheers!

H Oh dear. When did you last have them?

I Why? What has happened then?

J Why? What’s wrong with it?

Here’s an example of how you do this quiz:

Someone says: “I’ve just heard, we’ve won the export achievement award.

You type: E

(The correct answer is: Congratulations. That’s good news.)

1 I’ve got a terrible headache.

2 The director has had to go into hospital for a few days.

3 I’m giving a presentation to the board tomorrow.

4 Be careful when you switch it on.

5 I’m going to Florida on holiday next week.

6 Thanks for inviting me, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to come.

7 Well, here’s to a successful joint venture.

8 I can’t find my glasses.

9 You should have been at the meeting yesterday.


Order more quizzes here: http://englishwithasmile.net/order/

Learn to be a perfect dinner guest in this article about table talk.

2 thoughts on “Lots of Tips for Small Talk

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