5 big ideas for better small talk

Two men having a conversation outdoors in winter.

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I used to meet the same people at the bus stop every day on my way to work. Small talk was common as we waited for the bus. To be honest about it, I used to dread this morning ritual because I’m not a good conversationalist. I worried about my English and panicked when I didn’t understand what they were saying since they spoke too fast. It was nerve wracking for me! I knew I was missing out on a good opportunity to connect with others in my community, but I was just too worried.

So what is small talk and why is it important to have small talk skills?

Small talk is light conversation with people around you. It is generally informal. In Canada, it usually starts with an exchange of “how-are-yous” (and of course each one answers back “good”). From the initial pleasantries, it can proceed to a longer conversation about neutral topics.

If small talk is not part of your culture, it can be difficult to start or participate in it. The best way to understand it is this: More than anything, small talk is a way of showing respect. It is acknowledging the presence of a fellow human being, and connecting with them through an exchange of words. Engaging in small talk is also a skill that is essential for socializing and building your professional and personal network. It is part of forming a good first impression. Through small talk, you can show that you are personable, interesting and engaging.

So what do people usually talk about?

  1. The weather
    Canadians are obsessed with the weather (read Is it really colder than Mars? The truth about Manitoba weather). Some say that talking about the weather is a cliché. But in Canada (especially Manitoba), where the weather can change on a moment-to-moment basis and winters are legendary, expect that it is always at the top of people’s minds. Example conversation openers would be: “Nice weather we’re having today” or “Would you believe all this snow we’ve been having?”

    Newcomer tip: In conversations like these, some Canadians may start complaining about the weather. Don’t take it as a cue to complain harder or worse, mention how the weather in your home country never gets as bad as it does here. This is in bad form. Despite their penchant for complaining about the weather (about winter specifically), Canadians carry it as a badge of honor that they can survive the extreme cold. And while they complain a lot about it, it is said that they are secretly proud of the weather as well.

  2. Their work or profession
    People like talking about their profession. Naturally! It is what occupies a big chunk of their time. If they are especially passionate about their work, you can expect an animated conversation. This can also be a good opportunity for you to professionally network. Example small talk openers would be: “How was your day?” or “Did anything interesting happen at work today?”

    Newcomer tip: Newcomers looking for a job can be tempted to ask for help from a casual acquaintance. While part of your intention is to network, avoid being too forward. When asked, you can say that you are looking for work in a particular field or that you are an experienced ___ professional. Most people will volunteer information or offer help without you asking.

    How to make small talk (in a corporate setting) from the Business Insider.

  4. Current events and sports
    As long as you keep away from politics (or deep issues), current events is a safe topic. To prepare, you can learn about the latest news by watching or listening to CBC or CTV, or reading the newspapers. When a friend or colleague starts the conversation with “Did you hear about the…” you will have something to contribute to the conversation. Sports is another common thing people like to talk about. Hockey, especially, is a big thing in Canada. If you would like to participate in this conversation, then keep up with Canadian sports news or better yet, watch a live game.

    Newcomer tip: Don’t pretend to know something you don’t! It’s ok to say that you don’t fully understand the game when you don’t or if you don’t like the game, say it politely. It will probably make for better conversation because many people will be happy to volunteer to explain it to you.

  5. Arts and entertainment
    Hobbies and other forms of recreation are also great topics. Exchanging information about the latest movies, TV shows, popular restaurants, and books can become the start of an exciting conversation.

    Newcomer tip: Be respectful of personal preferences. If somebody sang praises for something you do not particularly care for, just smile and say “it’s nice that you enjoyed the movie/show/music/book/dish.” Be polite. Everyone has the right to choose what they like.

  6. They ask questions
    An important thing to remember in small talk is that listening is just as important as speaking. Instead of being anxious about what you need to say, be genuinely curious and interested in other people’s views. Ask open-ended questions (how and why questions) that will encourage them to say more than just a few words. For instance, you can ask: “How was your week?”

    If the person you’re conversing with offered a piece of information that needs more elaboration, go ahead and ask. For example, if you started the conversation with “How are you?” and the person answers back “I’m good, I just came back from vacation.” It will be polite to say “That’s great! Where/How did you spend your vacation?”

    Newcomer tip: Be careful not to ask questions that are too intrusive. Don’t ask personal questions especially if you are not close with the person. Steer clear from topics such as health, religion, politics, sex, and money. Good examples of what not to ask is: “How much do you make?” or “How old are you?” (especially if you are talking to a lady).

Closing the conversation

Leaving the conversation abruptly without notice can be impolite. You can always end with “It was nice talking to you. Have a good day.” or “That was an interesting talk. It was nice catching up with you.” Soon you’ll find that with more practice, you can be a small talk pro in no time.

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Community Resources

Practice makes perfect! Improve your conversational skills by joining our Virtual Coffee Chats.

There are many free English Conversation Circles around Manitoba. Good examples are the Immigrant Centre’s AEC Conversation Groups and the A&O Support Services for Older Adult Immigrants Conversation Circles. You can also inquire from your nearest Immigrant Serving Organization, Community Centre, or church for Conversation Circles within the community.

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Everyday Conversations

The following is a sample dialogue between Aisha and her boss Elena. Aisha is in the office break room getting some coffee when Elena steps in.

Aisha: Good morning Elena. How are you?

Elena: Can’t complain. How’s it going?

Aisha: I am good, thank you. It was a bit chilly this morning. I think soon it will be fall.

Elena: Yes, you’re right Aisha. I noticed that too. Yesterday, on my way to our project meeting, I needed to go back to my office to get a jacket.

Aisha: Speaking of the meeting, I am excited about the new project you discussed yesterday. But I do have a few questions about the deadlines. Do you have time to meet with me today?

Elena: I have meetings all morning but I will be free around 2 pm. Would that work for you?

Aisha: I’m sorry but I have a client at two. How about tomorrow morning?

Elena: I’m free at around 10.

Aisha: That would be great! I will come by your office tomorrow. Thank you, Elena.

“Can’t complain” means that things are good and the person has nothing negative to say. You can use this informal phrase instead of “I’m good” when asked the question “How are you?” Other ways to answer: “I’m great, thanks”; “I’m fine”; and “Pretty good.”

“How’s it going?” is short for saying “How are things going in your work and life?” It is another way to say “How are you?” or “What’s up?” which are good conversation starters.

“Speaking of . . .” is a phrase used to introduce a new topic or question that is related to what the other person just said. It keeps you from abruptly shifting to a new topic, comment or question. You can also use the phrase “by the way.”

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