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 folks at the bus stop every day on my way to work. Small talk was common as we waited for the bus. To be honest, I used to dread this morning ritual because I was worried about my English. Sometimes, I didn’t understand what was being said as most of them spoke too fast. I didn’t look forward to having small talk but also I didn’t want to miss out on a good opportunity to connect with others, so I decided to try and improve my conversation skills.

“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. It is also a skill that is essential for socializing and building your professional and personal network.”

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” or a form of it). From the initial pleasantries, it can proceed to a longer conversation about neutral topics.

It can be difficult to start or participate in it if small talk is not part of your culture. 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.

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 where the temperature fluctuates 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 lately?”

    Newcomer tip: In conversations like these, some Canadians will 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 impolite. Despite their tendency to complain too much about the weather (about winter specifically), Canadians carry it as a badge of honour that they can survive extreme cold.

  2. Their work or profession

    People like talking about their jobs. You can expect an interesting conversation if they are especially passionate about their work. This can also be a good opportunity for you to network professionally. 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 may 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 having to ask.

    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, current events is a safe topic. To prepare, stay up-to-date with the latest news by reading, watching or listening to Canadian media outlets. People usually start this conversation by saying “Have you heard about/ Did you see the …”. If you’re familiar with the topic, you can respond with “Yes” followed by your reaction or view about it. Sports is another topic people like to talk about. Hockey is big in Canada. Many people also watch soccer, football, or curling. If you would like to participate in such conversations, keep up with Canadian sports news or watch a live game.

    Newcomer tip: Don’t pretend to know something you don’t (especially hockey)! It’s ok to say that you don’t fully understand the game, or politely mention that it’s not for you. It will probably make for better conversation because many people will be happy to volunteer to explain the game and its appeal to you.

  5. Arts and entertainment

    Hobbies and other forms of recreation are also great topics. Commenting about the latest movies, TV shows, popular restaurants, or books is a great start to an exciting conversation.

    Newcomer tip: Be respectful of personal preferences. If somebody likes 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. Every person has the right to choose what they like.

  6. They ask questions

    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 talking to 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 do not have a close personal relationship with the other person. Steer clear from topics such as health, religion, politics, sex, and money. Examples of what not to ask: “How much do you make?” “How old are you?” or “Who did you vote for in the last election?”

Ending the conversation

Leaving the conversation abruptly 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.
Article updated January 18, 2023.

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Community Resources

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

There are many free English Conversation Circles around Manitoba. Good examples are the Immigrant Centre’s AEC Conversation Groups and 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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