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Do you ever wish you didn't ever have to make small talk?
Maybe just thinking having conversations makes you nervous. And then once you are talking, you also worry if you are saying the right things, and you worry you are using incorrect grammar and/or strange words. Even worse, you worry that you might forget words all together! You might think, "How can I ever keep this conversation going?"
But try not to worry! Remember that even native English speakers sometimes have a hard time with small talk.
I’ve often felt uncomfortable when talking to acquaintances (people I kind of know), co-workers and new clients or new students. I’ve thought things like, “Oh no! I’m going to run out of good questions! I'm not going to have anything to to say!”
If you've been following this series of articles, you now have reviewed how to start a conversation in English and what NOT to say.
Now you need to know how to keep that conversation going!
Here are some tips that I use myself (especially when speaking foreign languages) to keep conversations alive and interesting:
Keeping a conversation going is the most difficult part of making small talk for me. My conversations sometimes even look like this:
Me: Hi, how you doing?
Neighbor: Good, you?
Me: Great, how’s work?
Neighbor: It’s going along fine. I have a new project with a studio.
And this is what I am ACTUALLY thinking when I am saying ‘Nice…,’:
“AAAH!! ...What should I say?... What should I ask?... Why can’t I think of anything to say?”
And if this conversation is in Spanish or Japanese (the other languages I speak) I might also be thinking, “Darn, what’s the word for ‘hurricane?’ Why didn’t I study more? Why can’t I remember the name of that actor on that show that is so popular now??”
Here's my first tip to help you conquer your fears and doubts and keep those conversations ALIVE!:
TIP #1: ASK AND LISTEN
It’s a fact: people LOVE to talk about themselves! So if you are stuck - if you can't think of something to talk about - during a conversation, remember to ask questions and listen attentively to the person you are talking to.
If you can start using just this tip, your small talk skills will increase. You will also start to learn more about the people around you.
Henrik Edberg, social skills and personal development writer tells us:
...try to actually listen instead of just waiting for your turn to talk. Focus outward instead of inward
You can read Edberg's whole article about small talk here.
Sounds good, right? We all want more fun and compelling conversations!
I've found that when I stop focusing on ME and what I think, I can ask my conversation partner questions about their lives and learn a lot in the process. The person I'm speaking to generally starts to smile more and they usually seem happy to talk about what they think or what's going on in there life.
And there's a bonus for me when ask questions, listen more and repeat what my co-worker or friend is saying: I start to understand that person better and I learn about their culture too.
TIP #2 KNOW HOW TO CHANGE THE SUBJECT (NICELY)
Okay, so now you're asking questions and learning about your conversation partner.
But maybe you want to change the subject and talk about something else. Remember, you're part of the conversation too! If the topic is boring or uninteresting for you, the person you are talking to will probably be able to sense that you are bored or uncomfortable.
One way to fix this is to change the subject. In English we have a few set phrases that you can use to do just this.
Phrases you can use to change the subject:
That reminds me that…
Oh, before I forget…
By the way,...
Phrases you can use when you want to return to an earlier topic in the conversation:
Going back to what I was saying, …
In any case…
To get back to what I was saying,...
Where was I? Oh, right, I was talking about...
As long as you let the other person finish what they are saying first, any of these phrases will work to change the subject nicely.
TIP #3 DON’T FEAR THE SILENCE
Depending on your culture, you may feel more comfortable or less comfortable when there are pauses or a few moments of silence during a conversation.
No matter how you feel about silence, you can try to remember that it is not always a bad thing to pause and not say much in a conversation every so often.
In our fast-paced, speedy internet/Wi-Fi/app, always connected and more and more noisy lives, we are becoming less comfortable with silence.
But silence might just mean that the other person is thinking.
Thinking is not a bad thing! Take some time to think when you are speaking too. Breath in and out while the other person is talking or pausing and know that the words will come.
Studies show that the average American is only comfortable with about a 4 second pause in conversation. How long does it take you feel uncomfortable with silence? You can start to become comfortable with silence by beginning to notice just how much silence you are or aren't comfortable with.
And remember, the other person might just be thinking!
KNOW WHEN TO SAY BYE-BYE
Sometimes there's nothing you can do to keep a conversation alive. Maybe you or the person you are talking to starts to get nervous or bored, or maybe the conversation is just ready to end!
Sometimes we actually do have to get back to our desks and keep working! It's true! You can just say so nicely.
Here are few ways you can end a conversation:
"Well, I better get back to work! Talk to you later."
"It was so good to see you. I'll send that email to you soon. Bye!"
"Well, nice talking to you today. See you later."
"It was great hearing about (your trip to Florida). I'll be sure to tell my brother about it. Bye!"
And you can smile, and shake hands if appropriate and walk away.
Knowing how to politely end a conversation is just as important as starting the conversation correctly.
There you have it! Make sure to check out the first two posts in this series to learn more about small talk in American culture:
Making Small Talk in English Part 1: Starting the Conversation
Making Small Talk in English Part 2: What NOT to Say
And let us know in the comments below: What do YOU do
to keep conversations going?
Learn to speak real, conversational American English with Sabrina, an American English teacher.
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