Strategies for handling small talk

Strategies for handling small talk

By Dorothy Cleary

On the face of it, small talk looks simple. Conversations tend to be short-lived, topics are fairly predictable and repetitive, and most workplaces provide lots of incidental practice in this essential workplace skill.

However, small talk is extremely complex and difficult. It tends to happen very fast, both in terms of speed of speech and time frame for each conversation. It typically involves lightning changes of subject, a great deal of assumed common knowledge, jokes and sarcasm, and is often conducted in large groups. There is little or no time for the considered or slow speaker to get a chance to hold the floor, and consequently, most of our learners end up sitting in silence, bewildered by what is going on around them.

This blog will not address the socio-cultural issues of when and where small talk tends to occur, but rather the mechanics of how to participate in a typical small talk conversation.

Strategies for Small Talk – Managing the Conversation

One of my favourite small talk images is a game of volleyball. Most of us know the basic rules; the ball can be tossed around from player to player on either side of the net, but once it touches the ground, someone loses a point.

This is a perfect image for casual conversation, in which the key rule is, don’t drop the ball! How often have you asked a learner, “How was your weekend?” to which the discouraging answer is “Fine”, or “OK.” This is a typical ball-drop answer; there is nowhere to go from there except by asking questions, and while ESOL teachers are able and willing to do this, many non-teachers don’t have the desire or the skills to draw out an unconfident or reluctant speaker.

I always tell my learners that most Kiwis are not actively unfriendly. They are willing to start a conversation, but they may well be nervous too, and they may consider, at least unconsciously, that the short, non-informative answer is a brush-off. It may be unfair, but the truth is that the newcomer has to meet the local a lot more than half way, particularly in the first few encounters.

So, how do you keep the ball in the air? There are three basic strategies for this; none of these are difficult, but all require constant practice and reinforcement.

Keeping the Ball in the Air

1. Answer and add

‘How was your weekend?’
‘Fine thank you. We went to the beach. It was lovely weather, wasn’t it?

Unlike the ball drop answer, this gives the other speaker many places to go. They can ask about the beach, comment on the weather, say what they did… Of course, most first language speakers will be quite unaware of the difference between these two answers. They will just feel that the first speaker is not very interested or interesting, whereas the second one is easy to chat to.

The skill of ‘answer and add’ is easily taught and practised. Listening to New Zealand Intermediate has a good conversation to use as an initial activity. Learners can practise and use simple, predictable phrases to extend their conversational repertoire.

2. Answer and ask

‘How was your weekend?’
‘Fine thank you. We went to Waihi beach. Have you been there?

If your learner needs time to put utterances together, this is an excellent strategy. Again, it is easy to practise and learn some simple stock phrases.

3. Encourage the speaker

This is perhaps the hardest of these strategies to learn and master. Encouraging with body language, small phatic phrases – Really? That’s cool! Yeah, I love that too. Oh no! What a shame, What happened then?… is a basic, unconscious skill for most first language speakers. It is a matter of transferring this first language skill into English phrases, and of attempting to use appropriate intonation and body language while doing so.

Awareness raising and conscious practice are the best ways to master this very important skill.

Managing the Topic

One of the most difficult issues for ESL speakers is the lightning-fast topic changes that happen in a typical small talk conversation. This is complicated by the fact that many topics, such as an update on the latest Masterchef show, or a discussion of why the ref was so useless in the game last night, are inaccessible to our learners. The truth is that sometimes they simply won’t be able to keep up, but that does not mean they should give up altogether and retreat into silence.

One way to manage this problem is to start the conversation, either with the group or with one person. The speaker will then know what the topic is, at least until the next change! I teach my learners some common, useful questions or phrases to start a conversation. A never-fail topic, which requires nothing more than polite listening thereafter, is to inquire after (grand) children or pets.

• How’s your daughter? (name) Did she win her match? …
• I like that skirt. Where did you get it?
• Did you see that bananas are on special?
• The river’s really high right now, isn’t it?
• We’re getting more rain this week.
• Did you hear about…? (reference to local or work news)

Many classroom activities can practise all of these strategies, either alone or in combination. Try a few cards with starters on them, and let the conversation go from there. Award points for not dropping the ball. Make the activities fun and non-threatening.


Dorothy Cleary has over 25 years TESOL experience, as a teacher, academic manager, curriculum designer and, over the past 10 years, as a resource and curriculum developer for Asia and New Zealand. She has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University in Wellington (2005) and is an IELTS examiner.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Sergey Novikov

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