Our Learner Summit session "Small Talk, Big Conversation" was so popular last month, we thought the topic deserved a follow-up blog post from a former Lingo Live coach.
Small talk in the workplace is something everyone struggles with sometimes. Whether you’re new to conversational English or a native speaker, many people find small talk to be awkward and uncomfortable. However, it doesn’t have to be! Informal chatting is a powerful way to improve your spoken English, build your vocabulary, and strengthen your listening skills. Whether you’re adept at conversational English, or just starting out, the tips below will help you build your small talk skills:
Tip #1: How to handle the question “How are you?”
In many Western countries, “How are you?” isn’t a question you need to answer with the complete truth. Most people would be quite surprised if you replied with, “Oh, I’m terrible!” and gave a lot of details. A simple, “I’m good,” or “I’m okay, thanks,” is a perfectly acceptable answer. If you are friends with the person, more honesty and detail is appropriate. However, if you don’t know them well, it’s better to keep your answer simple. Make sure that you always ask them how they are, too!
One habit many learners have is responding with “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” Be careful! If you always answer in the same way, it seems automatic, like a robot. Try to change your response a little every time. It’s great practice!
Here are some phrases you can try out in the workplace:
Tip #2: Talk about the weather.
Okay, but what should you talk about? Small talk in the workplace is meant to be casual and friendly. It’s really about establishing a comfortable environment, so you don’t need to worry about finding the “correct” conversation topic. Chatting about the weather is a good idea because it’s a neutral topic that affects everyone. It can also be an interesting way to introduce your home country to your coworkers. For example, if someone says, “How about this snow?” you could say, “Where I’m from, we never have snow. This is new to me!” People love learning about new places, so feel free to talk about where you come from.
Tip #3: Everybody loves the weekend!
The weather’s not always worth talking about, and your coworker seems to be in a talkative mood. What to do? Well, everyone looks forward to the weekend. Why not ask “Hi, Jane. How are you? I think I’m going to go shopping this weekend. Where do you recommend?” Feel free to ask about their plans, too.
If it’s Monday or Tuesday, you can also talk about the previous weekend. “Hi, Jane! How was the weekend? Did you do anything fun?” Make sure to use the past tense if you ask about last weekend.
This is a great way to make friends in the workplace. Talking about weekend plans gives you a natural opportunity to invite someone to join you. It also gives the person you are speaking with the chance to invite you somewhere. You’ll discover all kinds of events and things to do using this tip.
Here’s an example. One of your co-workers had plans to go whitewater rafting one weekend. A few days before, they had been talking with Japanese coworkers who were new to America. After discussing their weekend plans, and discovered their coworker had never seen the beautiful countryside outside of the city. So they took them along rafting, had a great time, and made a few new friends.
Tip #4: Don’t ask the same questions every day.
Okay, so you’re at the point where you’re comfortable starting small talk in the workplace. Now the challenge is to vary your conversation topics! If you constantly ask the same questions and give the same responses, people will find you a little strange and potentially not interesting. Here are a couple more ideas:
Tip #5: Avoid discussing anything too personal.
One of your team members, while working overseas, was quite surprised when a coworker loudly announced she was having… well, let’s say “bathroom problems.” Although it’s perfectly fine to tell your coworkers you aren’t feeling well, it’s a little embarrassing to hear someone talk about such intimate information, especially in the workplace. It can be considered inappropriate.
At the same time, if someone is discussing a topic that makes you uncomfortable, it’s okay to excuse yourself. It’s perfectly fine to smile and say “I’d rather not talk about politics/religion/etc. when I’m at work, sorry.” This is a gentle way to express your boundaries – and, let’s be honest, those really aren’t good workplace topics anywhere.
Tip #6: Don’t talk about someone’s appearance.
It’s fine to tell someone you like their shirt or that they look nice, but it’s never appropriate to make a negative comment. “You look so tired!” “You’re gaining weight, aren’t you?” “Are you sick? You look terrible.” Even if you are genuinely trying to express concern, no one likes to hear these things. Stick to the positive. Unless you work at a modeling agency, appearance doesn’t matter in the workplace.
Tip #7: It’s okay to excuse yourself.
Your coworker’s been chatting with you for quite a while now. There’s lots of work to be done, you need to use the bathroom, and your boss is starting to look annoyed. You don’t want to offend your coworker, so what should you do?
Small talk is just as it sounds – small. That means quick, light, friendly chat. Although some people love to talk and will happily do it for hours, others feel differently. Every office has at least one worker who wants nothing more than to talk endlessly! That’s why it is perfectly fine to excuse yourself from a conversation that is going on too long, or even if you just don’t want to talk.
It’s never rude to end a conversation because you have responsibilities elsewhere, so don’t be shy. Smile and say something like, “I’m sorry, [John], I have to get started on my work. We’ll talk later, okay?”
Lingo Live wants learners to feel comfortable and enjoy speaking in English, so hopefully, this article will give you some ideas to improve your workplace small talk. Do you have your own ways to get through workplace conversations? Why not try discussing strategies with your Lingo Live coach?
Want to learn more? Check out the Lingo Live Learner Summit session Small Talk, Big Conversation.
— Former Lingo Live Coach Ryan Winterhalter and Anna Merchant
Interested in reading more about developing your soft skills? Check out 5 Ways to Improve Speaking on the Fly and The Skills Engineers Need to Run Effective Meetings.