Monday, October 9, 2017


“Small talk” refers to the casual remarks and topics Americans use when they want to enter a conversation, create the impression of being friendly before they know you well, or generally fill conversational space to be polite. Sometimes called “breaking the ice,” small talk allows American friendliness to enter an otherwise “frozen conversation” that would leave you standing in awkward silence, going nowhere.

Small talk is stressful for non-natives to master for several understandable reasons:
  • You may be uncomfortable jumping into a conversation without being “invited.”
  • You are not familiar with many small talk subjects, like sports, local weather, casual political generalizations, or pop culture references.
  • You may fear situations where you have no fluent vocabulary.
First, recognize that small talk is useful because Americans are uncomfortable with silence and this is a shortcut to forging relationships. Join in readily, showing you’re glad to be one of the group.

Then familiarize yourself with some common themes. The easiest is probably weather because we all experience it. Coming indoors and entering a conversation you might say (depending on the situation, obviously) “Whew, what rain out there! Glad I remembered my umbrella!” or “What a gorgeous day; I love this time of year here.” Or as you follow the important practice of responding to every remark (see an older Tip on Ping Pong Conversation), you might reply, “Yes, my windshield wipers could hardly keep up with the rain!” or “Me too; this is unusual weather for my country.”

Among men, sports is a common topic. You may not have knowledge of or enthusiasm for American sports, so that can be challenging. After someone says, “Did you see the Steelers game last night!” you might reply apologetically when you admit no, that you have a lot to learn about American football.

And in general if you have no knowledge of some reference (“What’s Congress trying to do anyway?” or “…as compatible as Beyonce and Jay-Z”), you can mirror the reaction of those around you, nodding or smiling in sympathy with the speaker.

As for vocabulary related to these sometimes unfamiliar subjects, develop some standard responses that apply to many of them. “I wish I knew more about that. Life in America is a constant education for me!”