Imagine you are in a public space together with someone else. Instead of just grabbing your phone, you may want to start a casual conversation to break the ice. In such moments, small talk is used to connect with strangers and thus to break the ice. Such ice-breakers are also commonly used at the start of social gatherings or events, like at conferences.
Social English. What learners of English may need to become aware of is that not engaging in small talk may be considered rude and the same holds for topics. While some topics are fine to bring up, others are perhaps less appropriate as these may make people feel somewhat uncomfortable or may polarize unintentionally, which is the opposite of why you’d engage in small talk in the first place.
When to use small talk. Small talk is usually used to avoid discomfort caused by moments of silence in which people cannot be anywhere else. An example would be when you are both waiting in a waiting area or when two new co-workers are waiting in the meeting room for the others to arrive or something.
When not to use small talk. However, such conversation starters should not be used to interrupt others who are seemingly in a serious conversation or when no eye contact has been made. The latter can occur when someone is clearly on his/her phone calling someone or when someone is reading documents or a book. The implicit social rule for small talk is to approach, non-verbally connect first through eye contact and then start engaging in it.
Topics that should be avoided: personal information, comments about someone else’s body, gossip, and controversial topics like politics and religion including your personal opinions regarding Canada’s gender identity’s rights, so the topic of pronoun being used to indicate someone’s gender or America’s pronoun laws. We just would not recommend it because you simply don’t know if the person you are talking to and are meeting at that moment in time identifies in a way you may not expect or has people who identify differently in their social circle.
Here’s a list of language tactics, i.e. divided into topics and questions
Such topics and questions can be used at the office and social events as well as when waiting somewhere for someone or something (to start). Please note: It’s completely fine to make mistakes, so no worries! Just try it and reflect on how it went afterwards on your own or with someone you trust.
At the (remote) office
- Have you had many conference calls today?
- Have you worked here long?
- Looking forward to the weekend?
- You look like you could use a cup of coffee.
At a social event
- So, how do you know [x]?
- Are you enjoying yourself?
- Pretty nice place, huh?
- You look like you could use another drink.
Talking about the weather
- We couldn’t ask for a nicer day, could we?
- It looks like it’s about to rain.
- Beautiful day, isn’t it?
- Can you believe all of this rain we’ve been having?
- You look like you’ve got your hands full (with children or goods).
- It looks like we are going to be here a while, huh?
- I’ll have to remember not to come here on [insert day]s.
- How long have you been waiting?