American small talk for non-native English speakers

If you’re like many of my clients, you probably struggle to make small talk with Americans. The acceptable topics of conversation may be different than in your home culture, or maybe small talk isn’t even a part of your home culture! However, in the U.S., it’s very important to learn about small talk if you want to succeed. You may feel like it’s a total mystery. After all, who cares about what you did last weekend? Don’t worry. This is a mystery I can help you solve.

Why is small talk so important?

Let’s start with the reasons for learning to make small talk. As Andy Molinsky explains in his article on small talk for the Harvard Business Review, relationships are the key to success in America, and being good at small talk is what will help you form those relationships. Small talk can help you to make a good impression in a job interview, connect with your boss, or chat more comfortably with your clients.

Let’s imagine that you get into an elevator at the end of the day, and suddenly your boss steps in with you. What do you say? You only have about five seconds to think of something before the situation becomes awkward. You can play it safe and just smile or look at your phone, but you’ll be missing an important opportunity to connect.

What you talk about isn’t that important. What is important is that you’re building a friendly connection with the other person. Americans are very friendly and casual compared to other cultures, and they expect friendliness in return. If you don’t respond to small talk or make the effort to try small talk, people may think you’re not friendly, not interested in them, or just not an interesting person. Nobody wants that.

What should I do?

A good way to begin is by observing what Americans do. Pay attention at work, or go to a coffee shop and listen to the people chatting. Listen to the questions they ask, the topics they choose, and how long they make small talk. Often people use small talk as a way to “warm up” before discussing their real topic. The small talk may only last a few minutes before they get to more important things.

Also, pay attention to their body language. The important thing in small talk is to make the other person feel like you are open and friendly, so try to use body language to send that message. Smile, look at the person when you speak, and give them your full attention. This sends the message that you care about the other person, even if you don’t know them yet.

The other thing to remember is that when Americans ask “How’s it going?” or “How are you?” they are really just saying “hi.” Unless you know the person well, it’s not really appropriate to give a long answer. It’s also a good idea to try to be positive. You don’t always have to say “Fine, and you?” like most of my beginner students do. You can be honest, but keep it short. Say something like “I’m good, how are you?” or if you’re not feeling good you can say “I’m ok.” Another way to answer “How’s it going?” when you don’t feel great is to say “It’s going,” which means my day isn’t great but I’m getting through it. Giving too much detail or a negative reply makes the other person feel uncomfortable, which is the opposite of what you want to do with small talk. (Karan Mahajan gives a funny example of how this can go wrong in an article for The New Yorker.) Save these more personal answers for your friends and family.

What topics are best?

It might seem strange at first, but a good place to begin is with the weather. It’s easy to comment on, and everyone has an opinion about it. There are three ways you can do this. First, you can share your opinion and say something like “I wish this rain would stop!” You can also ask a question, such as “Is it supposed to rain again tomorrow?” The third option is to make an observation, like “I heard it’s supposed to rain all week!” If you’re totally new to small talk, I suggest trying it out with the weather first, but be sure you know the correct vocabulary to describe the weather in your area.

Another topic that Americans love to talk about is their weekend plans or past weekends. Since the U.S. is really focused on work, the weekends give us a chance to take a break and relax. If it’s a Friday, it’s totally normal to ask anyone, even a stranger, if they have weekend plans. You can say something like “Do you have any plans this weekend?” or “Are you doing anything fun this weekend?” Similarly, on a Monday, it’s common to ask people about what they did on the weekend. “Did you do anything fun over the weekend?” If you try this one, the other person will probably ask you what you did as well, so think about what you want to say first.

Other good topics for beginners are food and current movies, TV shows, or other kinds of entertainment. However, it’s best to avoid topics that you don’t know much about or that have a lot of difficult vocabulary. For example, don’t try to talk about American football unless you understand the game, follow the teams, and know the words to describe it. Also, try to avoid topics that might make people uncomfortable, like politics, religion, or dating. These are considered more personal and you should only use them with people you are already friends with and know well.

I need more help!

Now that I’ve shared some tips for making good small talk, I’d like to hear from you! Do you still have questions? Ask me in the comments or send me an email! You can also try my online mini-course: Conversation Keys. It has more details about how to make conversation with Americans. It’s free when you subscribe to the Artglish community group, The Studio. (This group is also free.)

If you want an even more complete guide to improve your conversation, small talk, and critique skills, I also have a paid course called Queen of Critique | King of Conversation. It will give you the tools, strategies, and language examples to help you feel more confident and excited about joining conversations and sharing your ideas with colleagues. You can watch the Promo video here.

If you prefer working directly with a coach, you can also schedule a free trial lesson so we can talk about what you need and how I can help!

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Jessica

I help artists and designers with their English so they can focus on being creative and changing the world.

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