Everyone loves a good chat, but how do we get the ball rolling when starting a conversation in English? We need to go beyond the usual ‘How are you? Fine, thanks!’. In this guide to English small talk, we will give you useful tips, vocabulary and examples to demonstrate how native speakers use conversation starters. Ready for a ‘chinwag’ (chat)? Let’s jump in…
When choosing an appropriate greeting, we need to consider whom we are speaking to and whether the situation is formal or informal. For example, when meeting your new boss for the first time, you will probably choose a more formal greeting, but when meeting someone at a party, you will want to be more casual and friendly.
Example: Good afternoon, madam.
You only need to use sir or madam if you want to show a lot of respect to someone – e.g. to a superior at work or when you are in a customer service role. Most of the time, Good morning / afternoon / evening is the best choice.
If someone greets you in this way, you don’t need to say sir or madam in your response. For example, if a shop assistant says:
Good morning, sir.
You would just reply:
We often drop words (e.g. Good) to be more informal.
Hi and hey are more informal than hello.
When using formal and informal greetings, it’s a good idea to listen to how the other person greets us. Your new boss might want to appear friendly, so could say Hi. In which case, if you respond with Good morning, sir your boss might think you are being overly formal. In this case, it’s better to respond with Hello or Hi.
The type of introduction you choose also depends on the formality of the situation.
These introductions are mainly used on formal social occasions.
After answering the question, it’s polite to ask the person how they’re feeling too:
These ways of asking how someone is can seem a bit robotic. In informal situations, we use other phrases instead of the typical How are you? I’m fine, thank you combination.
Returning the question:
Small talk is general conversation about unimportant things to make people feel relaxed and ready to have a deeper chat.
When you want to make small talk, you need to use a conversation starter – something that breaks the ice. There are many icebreakers you can use to engage in small talk – e.g. Lovely day, isn’t it? or Do you come here often. It’s my first time.
In British culture, it’s better to compliment someone’s work, presentation, accessories (such as a tie or bag), etc. than their appearance as this can cause uncomfortable situations.
Try something like:
Fran: I thought you gave a great presentation this morning.
This can open a conversation with the person accepting the compliment:
Jason: Thanks a lot. I’m glad to hear you liked it.
Follow this up with a question:
Jason: Do you have to give any presentations this week?
Fran: Not this week. But I have to present the quarterly results at the beginning of next month in front of 100 shareholders!
Jason: I don’t envy you! I get nervous when I have to speak in front of that many people.
Here are some more compliments and ways to accept them:
Laura: That bag is lovely. Where did you get it from?
Pamela: Cheers (thanks)! I bought it from a vintage shop in town.
Greg: I really appreciate all the hard work you put into the spreadsheet; it’s made my life a lot easier.
Martin: Ah, thanks a lot, mate. No worries, happy to help.
Brits are famous for always talking about the weather, so here are some phrases to help get you involved in one of the nation’s favourite topics of conversation! Sometimes we ask direct questions, but we can also use factual statements about the weather to stimulate conversation.
When it’s warm or neither too cold nor too hot, we often use the word mild:
Clear and cloudy skies:
It’s a good idea to be careful when telling a joke because people are appreciative of and sensitive to different types of humour.
Jokes can also be difficult to understand because they often include references specific to a culture. Some jokes can make you seem a bit cheesy (clichéd) or cringe (making someone else uncomfortable) too.
Here’s a typically cheesy icebreaker joke about it being difficult to know what to say when meeting someone:
I know we’ve only just met, but we both have something in common: you don’t know what I’m going to say next, and neither do I!
With jokes, it’s best to find something funny to say about the situation you’re in to get the conversation started:
Someone arriving late:
You might think these jokes are terrible, so try thinking of your own ways of responding to a situation with humour. Choose something universal and light to keep the conversation open and friendly.
The options are endless, but it’s important to keep the topics light with new people. If you start asking questions about politics or religion, you could find yourself in an argument without meaning to!
Below are a range of general topics that will keep the conversation open. But first, a note about asking informal questions in conversational English.
How to ask Informal questions
In informal English, when addressing someone directly, we drop auxiliary verbs (e.g. do, did, have, be) and the subject you when forming questions:
Are you enjoying the party?
You can do this with many tenses:
It doesn’t work when using another subject (e.g. he / she / it / they) because it sounds like you are addressing the person / people you are speaking to directly:
It also doesn’t work with will:
For questions about future plans, it’s better to use the dropped form of the present continuous:
Q: What did you do at the weekend?
A: Not much – we just stayed in and chilled.
Q: What have you been up to? (what have you been doing recently?)
A: I’ve been really busy with work – we have a lot on (much to do) at the moment.
Q: (Have you) been up to much recently?
A: Yeah, Jen and I went to see Lady Gaga at the O2 – it was amazing!
Q: (Do you have) any plans for the weekend?
A: Nothing in the works so far. We’ll probably go for a bike ride at some point.
Q: (Do you have) anything planned for summer?
A: We’re thinking of going to Egypt. How about you?
Q: What are you up to this afters/arvo (afternoon)?
A: A bit of shopping and then home to cook dinner I think.
Q: What have you got lined up (arranged) for Christmas?
A: We have the in-laws coming over, and we’re going to have Christmas dinner at a restaurant to save time cooking.
Q: What do you get up to in your free time?
A: I love sewing and visiting art exhibitions.
Q: What music are you into (do you like)?
A: I like a bit of everything, but mostly rock and pop.
Q: What sports are you keen on?
A: I play a lot of tennis, but I also like hiking.
Q: How do you spend your free time?
A: I don’t have much free time. But when I do get some time off, I like to go sailing.
Q: Did you watch anything good on TV last night?
A: No, nothing was on, so I just read my book.
Q: What brings you here today?
A: I’m here to do some networking for my company.
Offer someone something:
Q: Would you like a glass of water?
A: I’d love one thank you.
Q: (Do you) Fancy a cuppa (cup of tea) at break time?
A: Sounds great.
Q: Excuse me, is this seat taken?
A: I’m afraid my boyfriend is sitting there.
Q: Mind if I join you?
A: No problem, go for it.
There are many other questions you could ask, but these are some good ones to get you started. Try practising how you would respond to these questions and build them into conversations with greetings, introductions and by asking how someone is.
As above, one of the best ways to show interest, is to reply to what the person says or ask more questions. Make sure you do this at the right point, so you don’t interrupt your conversation partner.
Other things you can do to show interest are nod your head (move your head up and down) and maintain eye contact to show you’re paying attention.
You can also say words and short phrases to show that you are interested in the conversation and express emotions, such as sympathy or surprise.
Surprise, interest, disbelief:
Lucy: I cycled 100 miles last weekend.
Kevin: No way! You must be knackered (very tired).
Sympathy and empathy:
Nuria: When we arrived at the hotel, they told us that they had double booked our room, and we would have to look for another place to stay.
William: That’s awful. Did you get your money back?
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