Small talk: What it is and how to get better at it
By Amanda Owusu
Posted on February 22, 2021
Small talk is the conversation you make with the people around you about topics that are simple and non-personal. You typically have small talk with people you don’t know very well. These conversations are common in school, work, stores, and parks. People usually talk about topics like the weather, current events, and entertainment. This article will help you learn more about small talk, why it is important, and what topics to talk about.
Small talk is a part of everyday life in Canada. Examples of this type of conversation include: the conversation you have with a neighbor you don’t know well, a chat with a classmate you sit beside on the first day of school, or a quick comment to a colleague who works in the same department as you. Small talk is very common in Canada and can start with a “how are you” or a comment on the weather or the location. It’s normal to have small talk with people you don’t know at all or don’t know very well.
People use small talk to show respect, break silences, fill time, and be friendly. This casual conversation helps you connect with the people around you; it helps you make a good impression as someone friendly and respectful. Small talk is not only important because it’s a part of Canadian culture, but because it can also help you grow your personal and professional relationships. Important connections and relationships begin through small talk. The Newcomer has an article that explains networking in more detail if you are interested in learning about it further.
The Government of Canada published a guide called “Canada cultural insights,” where you can find more information about Canadian conversation customs and topics. This guide covers topics such as communication styles, displays of emotion, conversations, and relationship building. This guide can be helpful if you are trying to learn more about Canadian culture and communication.
How to make small talk:
Smile and make eye contact
If the person does not begin conversation with you first, a good way to start small talk is to smile and say something to that person. According to researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, a university in the United States, smiling makes people happier. For this reason, smiling is a great way to start an interaction with someone you don’t know. Making eye contact is also a great way to start small talk and express engagement. Try commenting on something that you and that person share in common, such as the location or the weather. You can also ask the person how they are doing. Below, you’ll find a list of appropriate and inappropriate topics for casual conversations.
Stick to safe and neutral topics
Because you’re having a conversation with someone you don’t know very well, it’s best to stay away from topics that are personal or controversial. Avoid topics that may make someone emotional or uncomfortable unless your conversation partner brings them up. Here are a few examples of inappropriate conversation topics you should be careful discussing:
- Personal issues like relationship or financial problems
- Death or other tragic events
- Personal gossip
- Appearance or age
Listen and acknowledge their comments
When making small talk, it’s best to ask questions and listen to the person’s response. After listening to what they say, you can make a comment of your own based on what they have told you. This shows that you have listened to them. It’s best not to talk over or interrupt people when they are speaking, as this can be seen as rude, especially if you don’t know them well.
Ending the conversation
Whatever the situation, it’s best to end the conversation on a positive, friendly note. When it’s time to close the conversation, you can end it by saying “I enjoyed talking to you; I hope you have a good day” or “It was great talking to you! I hope you take care.” Phrases such as these are a great way to end conversations with people you don’t know and show that you are polite and thoughtful.
You can practice small talk at work, when shopping, or wherever people are. Small talk is an important skill to develop, and the more you practice, the easier it will become.
Appropriate topics for small talk in Canada:
- Weather: Talking about the weather is always a safe topic and something that everyone can relate to. You can bring up the weather now or the next day’s. For example, you could say, “It’s so cold today!” It’s common in Canada to complain or make a comment about the weather during small talk.
- Work: This topic works best when talking to your co-workers or people in your field. You can make a comment about your job or ask them a question about it. For instance, you can say, “I heard that your department got new computers. How are you enjoying them?”
- School: School is a good topic for small talk especially when talking to students, faculty, or school staff. For example, if you’re a student, you can talk about a class with your classmates.
- Sports and sporting events: This topic works well when the other person knows and cares about the event or team. A great tip for small talk is, if you see someone wearing a sports team logo, you can use that sporting team or sport in general as a topic for small talk. If you’re not familiar with the sport or team, you can ask them a question about it. In Canada, popular sports are hockey, basketball, and baseball, and they make great conversation starters.
- Pop culture and entertainment: This topic can help you connect with someone based on a common interest. You can bring up popular movies, songs, and celebrity events as topics for small talk. For example, you can ask them if they have seen a movie and tell them your thoughts on it. The Newcomer has an article that talks about pop culture in Canada that you can read for an idea about potential topics.
- News: Current news is a great topic to use when speaking to people who are familiar with the same type of news as you. You could currently bring up COVID-19 and the different news events that surround it or other popular new stories and topics.
- Food: Food is something that everyone has in common and can be used to make small talk very easily. You can make a comment on a type of food or ask a question about it. This topic works great if you’re at a restaurant or grocery store. You can also do this when you see someone trying a new food; you can compliment their food and ask them something about it. You can say, “That looks delicious; what is it made from?”.
- Hobbies: Another great conversation starter is talking about a common hobby or something you enjoy. This topic works great in the workplace because it lets you connect with other co-workers without revealing too much personal information. You can bring up your hobby or make a comment on theirs if they bring it up. For instance, when someone asks you “How are you?”, you can reply, “I’m good; I just finished writing a poem!”.
- The location: The common location that you and your conversation partner share could be another topic for small talk. You can make a comment or ask a question. For example, if you’re at a store, you can ask the other person, “Do you shop here often?”.
- Prices: A price tag is something you and the person you are speaking with could talk about, especially if both want to purchase the same item. For example, it is common in Canada to complain about the prices or make a comment about them. You can say, “The price of gas is so high these days!”.
- Complement: If you’re struggling to find something to talk about, you can always compliment them. The best way to do this is by complimenting them on something they are wearing and then asking a question about that item. For instance, you could say, “I love your necklace, where did you get it from?”.
- Their day: Asking someone how their day is going is a great way to connect with them and show that you are thoughtful and considerate.
- Asking for their opinion: You can also ask someone for their opinion on something that is not sensitive, such as asking for their opinion on a book, movie, or other entertainment topic. You can also ask about good restaurants and food items. For example, you can say, “Do you know any good pizza stores in the area?”.
Example of small talk:
This is an example of small talk between two co-workers who happen to be in the break room at the same time.
Michael: “Hi Pam. How are you today?”
Pam: “Hi Michael, I’m doing well today. How about you?”
Michael: “I’m great. I heard we’ll be getting some sun tomorrow, so I’m excited for that!”
Pam: “Oh, really? That’s great news; it’s been a while since we have had any good weather around here.”
Michael: “Right? It’s been very cold for the last week now. Any special plans for the good weather?”
Pam: “Yes. I might take a bike ride or go to the park if it’s still nice on the weekend.”
Michael: “That’s great. Well, Pam, I hope you have a great day. I have to get back to work now.”
Pam: “Thanks Michael, you too. Take care.”
This conversation ended because Michael had to go back to work, but he could have brought up another topic or made a comment on Pam’s hobbies and plans for the weekend, such as bike riding and going to the park to continue the conversation.
Small talk is a normal part of Canadian culture. It’s a way to connect and relate with other people, whether you know them or not. With practice, small talk can be something that you don’t think twice about and something that comes to you naturally. Now that you know how to make small talk, you can go out in the world and start practicing. Next time you go out, start a conversation with someone you don’t know and try using one of the topics mentioned in this article. Remember to smile and also remember that things are not awkward unless you make them awkward.