My Polish students really have very little to say regarding the topic and even less to say when attempting to make small talk.
There’s apparently a reason for this. They find it ‘fake’ and a waste of time, that it doesn’t lead to any real connection and is pointless, why bother, really?
This attitude, is in complete contradiction to what English-speakers generally believe regarding small talk.
Which is that it’s necessary, valuable and important. This is more a subconscious feeling about it than something expressed but English-speakers, generally speaking, engage in this activity with vigor. Here’s why:
It helps establish a connection, a bond between the people you meet and encounter and engage with. Whether social or professional this act may very well lead to a relationship, a contact, an opportunity. It’s networking, and it starts with small talk a lot of the time. It’s hard to absorb this I know. Most small talk encounters don’t lead to anything meaningful but that is not the point. It’s not meant to be so consistent but more of establishing that connection with people, allowing for an opportunity to present itself.
This can only happen though, if you try. If you lead the way by engaging in these interactions.
Why such a difference?
When I asked my classes what topics should be discussed, guess what very often my Polish students mentioned?
The weather of course, traffic and maybe even politics. There were others of course but these three came up first pretty consistently.
No wonder they hate small talk. Those three topics are a breeding ground for complaining, and we know how common that is. If you go into complain mode right at the outset of the interaction, it won’t be pleasant will it? So the first rule is, change the topics!
Small Talk ideas
I realized from these lessons that the approach to starting the small talk conversation, for a lot of my Polish students, is the difficult part. So here are a few more topics I suggested:
- Entertainment: Books, Films, TV(Netflix),Music
- Travel: business, vacation, the journey, length of stay
- News: related to a certain topic
- Mention something you noticed about the person before you approached them.
- Ask for help
That last one is for directions, recommendations, suggestions, advice whatever you want. Remember that you should avoid the ‘news’ on TV but focus on relative news for the situation. If you are attending a conference in some industry then it should be news related to that or news related to a common hobby/interest. Here’s something more:
- What’s your favorite aspect of your job?
- What was your first job?
- What were you like in High school?
- What is your guilty pleasure?
These are questions that you can have in your back pocket so to speak while your engaging in small talk. The last one in particular must NOT be asked. Rather, you should share your own first. This typically allows others to share their own, which leads to a moment of amusement typically.
Finally, remember that in some situations you’ll need to practice keeping the conversation going. The questions above can help with that. You can also practice asking open questions and HOW-questions that require full responses(this part does require some practice I admit). This all might not come naturally to everyone, and that is understandable, but it’s something that we should naturally be able to do as long as we engage in it from time to time.
If you’re a teacher, here’s a lesson idea for teaching small talk in the ESL classroom.