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. I did not look forward to this because I was not good at small talk. I was worried about my English and I didn’t always understand what they were saying. They spoke too fast! I decided to improve my conversation skills so I could participate and connect with my neighbours.

What is small talk and why is it important?

Small talk is chatting with people about every day things. Greetings usually start the conversation. They say “How are you?” It is also a way of showing respect. You are connecting with another person. Knowing how to make small talk is a skill. You will need it to socialize and build your network. It can show that you are interesting and open.

What do people talk about?

  1. The weather – Canadians like to talk about the weather (read: Is it really colder than Mars? The truth about Manitoba weather). It is always in people’s minds because the weather can change quickly.

    Some examples to start a conversation: “Nice weather we’re having today” or “Would you believe all this snow we’ve been having?”

    Newcomer tip:

    • Don’t complain harder when Canadians complain about winter.
    • Canadians are proud that they can survive extreme cold.
    • Don’t compare the weather in Canada with your home country’s weather. (For example: “The weather in my home country never gets as bad as this”). This is impolite.
  3. Work or profession – People like talking about their work. This is normal because work takes up most of our time. Talking about work can also lead to networking. You can start the conversation by saying: “How was your day? “Did anything interesting happen at work today?”
    Newcomer tip:

    • Don’t be too aggressive even when you are networking.
    • Say that you are looking for work in a particular field. Or that you are an experienced ___ professional.
    • People will give you information or offer help without being asked.
  5. Current events and sports – News is a good topic for small talk but avoid talking about politics. Watch or listen to CBC or CTV to know the latest news. You can also read newspapers. Sports is also a good topic. Hockey is big in Canada. Watch sports news or a live game so you can participate in conversations.
    Newcomer tip:

    • Don’t pretend to know something you don’t.
    • It’s ok to say that you don’t fully understand the game. Many people will be happy to explain the sport to you.
  7. Arts and entertainment – Hobbies and pastimes are good topics. You can talk about latest movies, TV shows, popular restaurants and books.
    Newcomer tip:

    • Respect other people’s likes and dislikes.
    • Be polite. Everyone has the right to choose what they like.
  9. They ask questions – Listening is just as important as speaking. Don’t worry about what you need to say. Just show interest in other people’s views. A good way to show this is to ask questions. Questions that start with “how” and “why” will encourage people to say more than a few words. For example: “How was your weekend?” Then ask for more details. For example, if you said “How are you?” and the person answers “I’m good, I just came back from vacation.” You can say “That’s great! Where or How did you spend your vacation?”
    Newcomer tip:

    • Don’t ask questions that are too personal. Don’t ask about religion, politics, age, sex, health, and money.
    • Don’t ask personal questions if you are not close with the person.
    • 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

A polite way to end a conversation is to say: “It was nice talking to you. Have a good day.” or “That was an interesting talk. It was nice catching up with you.”

Small talk can be learned. It just takes practice. Good luck!

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Everyday Conversations

This is a dialogue between Aisha and her boss Elena. Aisha is on her coffee break. Elena comes into the room.

Aisha: Good morning Elena. How are you?

Elena: I’m good! And you?

Aisha: A little cold, but good. I think fall is almost here.

Elena: Yes, you’re right Aisha. I noticed that too.

Do you like fall?

Elena: Oh yes! I like it because everything looks so pretty. The leaves of the trees around my neighbourhood turn yellow, red, orange and brown. How about you?

Aisha: It’s my first fall in Manitoba. I am excited to experience it.

Elena: Oh wow. That’s a great attitude to have. I hope you’ll enjoy fall as much as I do.

Aisha: Thank you, Elena. I hope so too.

Fall is also called “autumn” in other places. It is the season following summer. In Manitoba, fall comes in late- September to November. Temperatures start to go down to an average of 11.8°C to 24.8°C, to as low as -1°C to 9.8°C.

Talking about the weather is a common topic in Canada. People usually check the week’s weather to plan their activities, especially those that involve recreation.

When asking another person their opinion, you may use the shorter phrase “How about you?” The question is understood to mean (in this instance) “Do you like the fall too?”

Aside from “I’m excited to experience it” you can also say “I’m looking forward to it” to express your eagerness to experience something that is about to happen.

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