English Communication Confidence Blog

Crushing It In Conversation: Small Talk Strategies for English as a Second Language Professionals

Apr 30, 2024

If small talk feels like a big deal to you (and you're looking for strategies to get into conversations that lead to building greater rapport and more fulfilling relationships in English), have a look at this Crushing It In Conversation blog post so that you can take more initiative, offer help where needed, and have more shared experiences with others. 



Crushing It In Conversation: Small Talk Strategies for English as a Second Language Professionals

I never liked small talk growing up. It felt awkward and meaningless to me.

In fact, it wasn’t until I started my business in 1997 that I probably even considered using small talk. Let me tell you why.

Well, the first reason was because I saw my dynamic, extroverted business partner having so much fun at networking events and client lunches. I literally saw small talk conversations turn into friendships and business and thought..."He's onto something."

We all know that the world of work is a loud and busy place. Everyone is looking to be seen, to reach their ultimate job, and, with the right attitude, to make a difference in the world.

For professionals who speak English as a second language and who work for a multi-national organization where English is the language of business, there’s more to think about...language.

Here comes small talk.

Some of my clients feel ultra-comfortable speaking up in their meetings, about projects, and everything related to their expertise. However, I can’t tell you how many people have told me that talking about the weather throws them for a loop.

It may seem trivial, but it’s not and in today’s post we’re going to go into the reasons small talk matters and how you can build that muscle.

First, think about small talk as those brief, seemingly inconsequential conversations that oil the wheels of professional relationships.

Things like:

➔ The weekend plans

➔ The basketball championship

➔ and, oh yes, the weather.

For many, like me for so many years, small talk can feel opaque and anxiety-inducing. Let’s equip you with strategies to tackle the world of chit-chat with greater confidence.


The Challenge: Why Small Talk Feels Like a Big Deal

For non-native English speakers, the reasons small talk feels challenging are multifold. Here are just some of the common hurdles:


  • Cultural Differences: Every culture has its own social norms around conversation. In some cultures, directness is valued, while others prefer a more indirect approach. Small talk customs can vary widely, leaving you unsure of what's appropriate.

Brazil, India, and The U.S. are big on small talk while countries like Germany, Russia, and Norway are less accustomed to this culturally speaking.  


  • Vocabulary Gap: Small talk thrives on familiar topics and casual expressions. You might feel comfortable discussing technical terms in your field, but everyday phrases like "That's nuts!" or "Here comes the calm before the storm!" might be unfamiliar.

Hopefully, you take regular note of expressions that you don’t know so that you can grow your comprehension in this way.


  • Pronunciation and Fluency: Feeling self-conscious about your accent or not being able to articulate a thought quickly can make you hesitate to join conversations.

(It happens to me every day when I’m in Brazil. In fact, when I am able to jump in and say something appropriate and timely, I get surprised ;)


The Importance of Small Talk: Why It Matters

While it may seem inconsequential, small talk plays a crucial role in professional life. Here's why it matters:


  • Building Rapport: Small talk is a gateway to establishing connections. Those friendly chats when people are joining the virtual room or by the coffee machine can lead to valuable friendships with colleagues, fostering a sense of belonging and easing collaboration.

Let’s go back to my business partner.

When we started our company back in 1997, we had a lot of Japanese and French professionals fly into New York to do 10–30-day immersions with us. 

They were private engagements filled with 5-6 teachers and native English-speaker meetings each day.

I remember listening to my partner sit with each of our clients for at least 20 minutes before he dove into his lessons. The laughing and kibitzing (chitchat) was foreign to me.

But, what he was really doing was taking mental notes on the challenges each learner had during the conversation so that when he started to teach, he used something that came out of the small talk conversation.

It’s very clever to listen deeply during small talk so that you can use that information later to build rapport.

       That's something my partner was brilliant at!


  • Networking Opportunities: Casual conversations can open doors to unexpected collaborations or job opportunities. By showcasing your personality and interests, you increase your visibility and potentially make valuable connections.

Similar to building rapport, paying close attention to the words your conversation partner is using (and then saying them back during a conversation in subtle ways) will take what seems like casual talk into an opportunity to talk about business.


  • Creating a Positive Work Environment: A light-hearted exchange can brighten someone's day and create a more positive work environment. A friendly demeanor goes a long way in building a good reputation. Because many of us aren’t at the office every day these days, we need these light “back-and-forths” more than ever.

We’re social creatures and even if you are an introvert and not so sure if you’d be the first one to start the small talk, keep in mind that even the littlest of chitchat can elevate our levels of happiness, energy, and overall well-being.


Strategies for Small Talk Success

Now that we understand the challenges and benefits, let's dive into practical strategies to improve your small talk skills:


  • Start Simple: Don't try to force complex conversations right away. Begin with basic greetings, like "Good morning," "How are you?" or "Have a nice weekend?" These are universally understood and lay the groundwork for further interaction.


  • Find Common Ground: Look for neutral topics that appeal to a broad audience. Current events (that aren’t polarizing, of course!), comments on the office space, and weather are all safe bets.

Let’s talk about the weather for a moment. Here are 4 words for each season in the northern hemisphere that you can look up or use this year:


         ✔︎ Hay fever

         ✔︎ Pollen

        ✔︎ Unpredictable

        ✔︎ Vibrant 


        ✔︎ Sweltering

        ✔︎ Sun-kissed

        ✔︎ Humidity

        ✔︎ Thirst-quenched


        ✔︎ Brisk

        ✔︎ Cozy

        ✔︎ Autumnal

        ✔︎ Foliage 


        ✔︎ Chilly

        ✔︎ Slippery

        ✔︎ Cabin Fever

        ✔︎ Flurries


  • Actively Listen: Pay attention to what your conversation partner is saying. Ask follow-up questions to keep the conversation flowing and show genuine interest. This also buys you time to formulate your own responses.


  • Learn Common Expressions: Stock your vocabulary with everyday phrases for expressing agreement, like "Absolutely," "That's right," or "I couldn't agree more." Phrases like "That's interesting," "Really?" and "Tell me more" can show genuine interest and encourage them to share.

It also buys you time if you aren’t sure what to say!


  • Embrace Humor: Lighthearted humor can be a great way to break the ice and make a positive impression. Be mindful of cultural differences when using humor, though, and follow the lead on the type of humor that seems to work in your workspace.

          Here are four types of humor to consider:

         ✔︎ Puns: Wordplay based on multiple meanings of a word.

         ✔︎ Sarcasm: Saying the opposite of what you mean for comedic effect

         ✔︎ Self-deprecating humor: Making fun of yourself in a light-hearted way

         ✔︎ Wordplay: Clever use of language to create humor


  • Practice Makes Perfect: Talk to friends, family, or even yourself in English. Watch English-language movies and TV shows, paying attention to how characters engage in casual conversation.

Shows that come to mind are The Office, Parks & Recreation, and a more recent show, Industry.


Additional Tips for Non-Native Speakers:

  • Don't Be Afraid of Mistakes: Everyone makes mistakes, even native speakers. Embrace them as a learning opportunity and keep the conversation going.


  • Focus on Communication: The goal is to connect and be understood in small talk, not to achieve perfect grammar. Engagement is key, so you just need to be understood.


  • Body Language Matters: Make eye contact, smile, and adopt an open posture. Non-verbal cues can greatly enhance your communication.


  • It's Okay to Decline: Don't feel pressured to engage in every conversation. It's perfectly acceptable to politely excuse yourself if you're feeling overwhelmed.


Beyond Small Talk: Building Long-Term Relationships

While small talk is a valuable first step, aim to build meaningful professional relationships. Here's how:

  • Find Shared Interests: During small talk, pay attention to shared interests. Once you discover a common ground, you can delve deeper during future conversations.


  • Offer Help: Be willing to offer help and support to colleagues. This demonstrates your collaborative spirit and strengthens bonds.


  • Take Initiative: Invite a colleague to lunch where you can engage in light conversation. Let them know you've been working on building your vocabulary and comfort with small talk and if they have any tips about the culture and how to engage in light talk, you'd welcome their ideas.



The main idea with small talk is that it is a conversation starter and a way for you to start the road into more meaningful relationships and dialogues. So, take a chance to expand your comfort in this area and join the ranks of American professionals talking about their kids, the summer vacation ahead, and, yes, the weather ;)

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