Today, I’m going to give you a framework to help you strike up a conversation with practically anyone for the first time, a skill called small talk. Small talk is a polite conversation about something unimportant or uncontroversial.
I will first demonstrate this framework with 2 work scenarios. I’ll then explain what topics are ok to use and which are not in small talk.
Greeting someone who came back from maternity leave
Before we break down the framework, please listen to the conversation between Sam and Mary and see if you could point out what Sam could do better? Sam has just started a new job in San Francisco, and meets a coworker for the first time who just came back from Maternity leave.
S: Hi Mary, I’m Sam. I just joined the engineering team. Heard a lot of great stuff about you .
M: Hi Sam, thank you. Nice to meet you.
S: I understand that you just came back from maternity leave. Are you tired?
So that conversation didn't go too far, did it?
Sam started out great. He opened up with a nice "welcome back," a nice compliment, but did you notice what happened at the end? He asked a question that could be seen as a little too personal when meeting somebody for the first time, and it was a yes/no question. It has that closed end that doesn't really invite people to offer more details to engage. Let's see if Sam can do a better job the second time.
S: Hi Mary, I’m Sam. I just joined the engineering team. Heard a lot of great stuff about you.
M: Hi Sam, thank you. And nice to meet you.
S: I understand that you just came back from maternity leave. How’s your first day back going?
So did you notice how that really got the ball rolling. Sam asked an open-ended
question that really encouraged Mary to share more about herself and then she, in turn, asked Sam a question. They now have established a rapport. Let's listen to Sam again. This time he's given a different scenario to roll play.
This time he's in an elevator with a colleague and it's fairly early in the
A conversation in the elevator
S: Hey, looks like you are an early riser.
M: haha I try.
S: Yeah, honestly I wish I could stay in later today. I was so stressed about a presentation today that I couldn’t fall asleep. Do you ever have trouble falling asleep?
That was a little awkward. What went wrong there? Again, he did well establishing common ground. Both of them were at work early, but this time Sam is guilty of TMI - too much information.
Too much personal information about, in this case, his stress level and his sleep habits. For the first time talking with a colleague, not an ideal topic. And again he asks a closed-ended question that could be answered by a simple "yes" or "no." Clearly his colleague isn't in the mood or comfortable with this question. Let's see if Sam can apply some of his teacher's tips to improve on this second round.
S: Hey, looks like you are an early riser.
M: haha I try.
S: What brought you in so early today, if you don’t mind me asking?
M: Ah, nothing in particular. I just like to get things done in the morning. You?
S: I still need to put some finishing touches to a presentation. I could use some feedback.
This time, Sam broke the ice successfully! Notice how with just a few pointers
Sam is now ready to break the ice really with anybody in the office.
It's interesting that "break the ice," that expression is synonymous with, or has the
same meaning as, small talk.
Introducing the ICE framework
So let's use that word "ice" as our acronym for the three steps that Sam was trying to apply.
The first step is to, I, identify something that we have in common with the other person. We're in the same space together. There must be something that we share, right? Identify that and use it as a springboard for conversation. Could it be the holiday that you have coming up? It could be the busy exam schedule you have on campus. Maybe the project that the entire office is working on. Use that and move to step two.
C here stands for contribute. So we want to remember that conversation is a two-way street. First we want to contribute something about yourself that relates to that common ground we've established. Learn from Sam's example and don't get too personal too fast, since that might scare the other person away. Just give the person something that they could maybe relate to. Now if you can't think of anything to contribute about yourself we have a backup C, here, which is a compliment. Now really who doesn't respond well to a compliment about their hair, accessory, their dog. You can't go wrong here.
That brings us to our last step of E. Encourage. Here, once we've shared something about ourselves, we want to encourage the other person to open up. We usually do this by asking questions. Now try to ask open-ended questions using the five W's:
"who," "what," "when," "where," "why," and you can add "how," as well. Sam made the mistake of asking a few closed-ended questions at the beginning, right? And that brought the conversation to a quick end when that person, the other person, didn't share more detail about themselves. And again, be careful don't ask a question that becomes too personal. So there you have it.
I identify, C contribute or compliment, and E encourage.
Do’s and don’ts
Now, just a note about what is considered appropriate and not appropriate for small talk.
We heard Sam break 2 taboos in his attempts to make small talk, one about sleep habits and another implying someone looked tired, which raises the question: what is safe or not safe to talk about when you first meet someone?
Of course this will vary from culture to culture, but since our context is the native English speaker’s world, we’re going to focus on general guidelines for Western culture. It’s hard to typify one single culture in the English-speaking world, so keep in mind that a question one person is totally fine with might offend another person. These guidelines we’ll give you today are very general and err on the side of caution.
Let’s start with the danger zone, the taboos:
Ask any English speaker what taboos of small talk are and they’ll tell you Politics and Religion, so let’s start there.
“Are you a Democrat/Republican?” (liberal, conservative, socialist, anarchist, etc., etc.)
The reason this is taboo is pretty obvious. Remember the goal of small talk is to establish something you have in common and use that to build a rapport. Starting off with a question that is inherently controversial right off the bat really defeats the purpose of breaking the ice, which brings us to the second of our top two taboos.
Are you Christian? (Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, atheist, etc.)
Again, this is a controversial topic that often sparks debate or, at best, deep discussion. At the office, better to save this one for when you’ve passed the small talk stage and get to know each other better.
Other than politics and religion, what is best to steer clear of when initiating small talk?
As a rule, you want to avoid talking about anything too personal when you first meet someone. This includes:
“How much do you make”
Salary and income can be a sensitive subject because people feel they're going to be judged by it, So avoid asking someone if they have any debt, how much they pay in taxes or for rent, how much they save, or if they still get an allowance from their parents. In fact, no matter how close you get to an English speaker, even if you become best friends, the day may never come when talking about income is ok.
Other too personal details for small talk include:
“How old are you?” “What year did you graduate from high school?’
Comments about one’s age, either outright or being sneakier about the calculation…
“How much do you weigh?” “Is that your real hair?”
Physical appearance, age, skin tone, height, weight. Remember, it’s usually ok to compliment someone on their hair or accessories, but you wouldn't want to ask Is that your real hair, what happened to your hair, or did you lose weight? Many are sensitive about how they look, so best to avoid specifics.
“Are you married/single?” “Was that your girlfriend who dropped you off?”
And relationships. Relationships are tricky and could be a sensitive subject for some. Even asking if someone is married or has kids is considered too personal by some, so better to wait for them to offer that information.
“When is the baby due?”
And never ask a woman if she’s pregnant. No matter how obvious. Just don’t.
So with this long list of taboos, what on earth is ok to talk about to break the ice? Generally, if you stay away from the taboos, asking personal questions, you should be ok. Here’s a list of some of the most common topics you’ll probably hear in an office.
Weather - “I can’t believe it’s snowing already! How did you find the roads on your way in?”
Talking about the weather is an overused topic in small talk, especially when we can’t find any other common ground. If you really want to make a connection with someone eventually, use this only as your last resort.
Non-controversial news headlines - “I hear they’re going to start construction on the freeway next month! How will that affect your commute?”
Especially if it’s an event or a news item that will affect you both, this can be a good conversation starter.
Sports - “Did you catch that game last night? Who’s your team?”
Of course, using this topic requires that you actually follow what sports are played during which seasons, but it’s a very common topic of discussion in some circles. Like any topic for small talk, it’s best to use this if you actually watch or play sports.
Work - “How long have you worked as (role)?”
In the office, it’s always good to show a healthy interest in what your coworkers do. If you really want to get the conversation going, add the comment “Oh, that sounds really challenging!” after someone tells you what they do for work. Most people feel that their work is under-appreciated to some extent, so inviting someone to explain how important and challenging their work actually is can feel really validating and is a fantastic way to build rapport.
Travel - “How was your vacation?”
Do I need to explain? Everyone loves talking about vacation, and if you discover you’ve traveled to the same places, more common ground to build on!
Hometown - “Did you grow up around here?”
Asking where someone grew up is usually a nice safe way to show personal interest. Again, if either of you happens to have grown up in a place the other has visited, this is a great way to connect and get to know each other better.
Now you're ready to break the ice really anywhere. At work, in a party, on campus, anywhere else. If you'd like to learn more about how to make small talk more comfortably or improve your general and business english skills, feel free to book a class with Magoosh English Speaking and we'd be happy to help you. I'll look forward to seeing you in the classroom.