Small Talk in English

Small talk promo

Small talk. Do you consider it to be annoying, superficial chatter, or an essential social lubricant that builds trust? Maybe you consider exchanging pleasantries to be a fun, low stress way to pass the time, or as a boring waste of time.

How small talk is understood depends on the culture and context of the interaction. What do you think?

Discuss the following questions:
1.) What value does small talk have in your culture? What purpose does it serve?
2.) How might small talk be different in other cultures?
3.) What types of personal questions do you consider intrusive? What do you do if someone you don’t know, or don’t know well asks you questions that you’d prefer not to answer?


Beginner (A1+)
Leap Frog – Present Simple BE or Do
High beginner (A2-B1+)
What did you do? – Past Simple Ice breaker

Intermediate (B1 +)
Five Ways – Can you think of 5 ways to say:
1.) It is nice to make your acquaintance.
2.) I don’t want to answer this question.
3.) I think this event is enjoyable.
4.) I am glad that you are enjoying the event.


Beginner (A1+)
Learn or review the definitions
Beginner (A2+)
Make a question with each word.
current events

Beginner (A2+)
Questions with ‘how’ quiz

Intermediate (B1+)
Tag-questions – Learn or review how and why to use this question form.

Beginner (A1+)
Write a dialogue where 2 strangers meet and get to know each other.
Conversation Starters Randall’s Cyber Listening Lab

The Big Challenge of American Small Talk – Harvard Business Review (C1-2 reading)


How to engage in small talk comfortably and with confidence can be confusing for people who are new to North American culture. Let’s talk about what is considered appropriate, and practice with some activities.

Activity 1 – Take turns selecting questions from the image at the top of the page. Ask a question, and see how long you can keep the conversation going.

Activity 2 – Read over the infographic below. Think of situations that you might find yourself in with each of the relationship types, and role play engaging in small talk. Note that North America is very diverse, and this is only a general guide.

Activity 3 – Small talk horse race conversation game

Imagine that you are at an international conference. You are meeting people from all over the world. What topics and questions would you consider appropriate, risky, or inappropriate? Or would it depend on who you are speaking to and the situation?

1.) Each player selects a horse and moves it to the starting position.
2.) Players take turns selecting options and putting them in a category. They share their reasons for their answer.
3.) Players try to think of reasons why the option should be moved to a different category.
4.) Players vote on the best counter argument. The player with the best argument moves forward a space.
5.) It is the next player’s turn to select an option and put it in a category.

Try to be the first to reach the finish line, or to be in the most advanced position when the game is over.

An example of a round with four players:
It is player A’s turn to place an option. Player A selects “discuss new tech gadgets” in the appropriate category, and says, “this is definitely a safe topic. Everybody enjoys talking about interesting, useful objects”.

Player B says, “You’re right. I can’t disagree.” (Player B forfeits a chance to gain a point).
Player C says, “I think it’s risky. Some people have been the victim of cyber-bullying and abuse, and tech gadgets are often part of this. They often collect data about people that can be used against them. This topic may trigger them, or make them very uncomfortable.”
Player D says, “I think it depends. Many people can’t afford the latest tech toys. It could make people feel bad, and you could sound like you’re bragging.”

Players can discuss the counter arguments, and clarify any of the points made.

Now, all players vote on the best counter arguments. They all vote for Player D’s argument. Player D moves his or her horse forward one space.

Horse Race Score Board

Activity 4 – Role Play

Select a situation from the list, or suggest your own. Try having a chat as one of the people in the conversation.

A.) A work meeting has just finished, and you have the opportunity to chat with your new boss for a few minutes.
B.) You are waiting in line at a coffee shop. You notice that the person behind you seems a little impatient that it is taking a long time. Can you make their day better?
C.) You are on a bus, and notice that the person next to you has a really unique bag. Can you mention it, and strike up a conversation about it?