How to Avoid Awkward Silence by Doing Small Talk

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Are you tongue-tied or lost for words when in a crowd of unfamiliar faces? Do you dread getting invited to a party because you’re shy? Or, do you find yourself looking for a quiet little corner to hide when you are at social gatherings?

Today’s topic is small talk. Knowing how to do this will save you in your “awkward moment” situations. So first, what is small talk?

This is a polite conversation we have with people who are not well known to us.  These are people that we don’t really talk to on a daily basis, people we don’t know very well, or complete strangers. Small talk is, in essence, impersonal, light, and casual. This is because you are practically talking with strangers, especially in a social gathering.

For English learners, small talk is a very helpful tool in improving listening and speaking skills. This is where you get to practice your conversation skills.

So, when is small talk most useful?

This will help you if you’re shy, when you meet people for the first time and you don’t know what to say, and when you feel very uncomfortable at parties or in meetings. This comes handy when you are attending any social event actually.

You can also have small talks when you meet neighbors outside your apartment or people at a restaurant and when you’re at a bar or at a local post office. This is also useful between classmates at the beginning of a lecture, or between people who are attending a conference, seminar or workshop.

If you love to travel, small talk will help you go around easily especially when you are new in town.

5 Conversation Starters

Conversation starters break the ice. In other words, they break the silence—which is the first step to making a connection with the other person.

1. Greetings

Start with greetings as a way to open the communication channel or as an opener for a dialogue with a stranger in an unfamiliar place. You can ask:

  • What’s up?
  • How’s it going?
  • How are you doing?
  • Good morning! How are you today?

2. Talk about things in common

Ask about what you share in common. An example can be about a recent event in your area where you are pretty sure that also affects the other person.

  • Did you see the parade yesterday afternoon?
  • Were you also stuck in traffic last night?
  • Did you hear that the East Highway was flooded?
  • Did you go to the grand midnight sale at the mall?

If you can see the progression, these are stepping stones to making further conversations with the other person—which starts with a simple greeting.

3. Talk about the weather

Talk about the weather. This is certainly something that a stranger can easily answer.

  • It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?
  • It’s humid today, isn’t it?
  • A perfect day for a picnic, isn’t it?

4. Talk about family

Ask about family, but, always remember to keep it casual and light. You don’t really want to sound like a police officer doing an investigation. Here are the questions you may ask:

  • How many siblings do you have?
  • Do you have a big family?

Here you can compare your stories. If ever you are from a small family, maybe you always thought that growing up in a big family is interesting.

  • Where did you grow up? Or, where are you from originally?

This opens up a whole new topic on culture, differences between cities or regions, and perhaps differences between experiences growing up in a certain culture.

  • How are your children? How are they doing?

Folks normally love to talk about their children and their children’s interests, skills, or successes.

  • What’s your dog’s name?

This is a great conversation starter when you’re walking your dog at the park and you see someone who also has a pet. People love to talk about their pets, and pets are family, too. So, you can initiate this topic after you say hello.

5. Talk about common friends

Talk about common friends. This is when you try to strike up a conversation with somebody who is a friend of your friend, but this person may not be that close to you. This means the two of you have a mutual friend and you are in the same party because of that friend. Here are examples of what you can ask:

  • Have you seen Pete’s new dog?
  • How did you and Katrina become friends?

After the person answers, you can then reply “This is how we met…”

  • Have you tried Darla’s apple pie? She makes the best apple pie in town, doesn’t she?

HOP: A Small Talk Technique

After you’ve exchanged your hellos and you’ve about run out of conversation starters, yet the party is far from the end, have you ever wondered,

“What do you really talk about when you don’t know what to talk about?”

Here is the HOP technique that will trigger a conversation and will keep the conversation going AND interesting. HOP means hobbies, occupation, and passion.

Hobbies

The key here is to try to find similarities with the other person. The topics range from interests, recreation and usual past time to food, travels, movies, sports, and books.

-What do you enjoy doing?

-What you do during your day off?

-Do you play any sport? Or watch any sport?

-Have you seen “The Last Samurai”?

-What movie can you recommend? Why?

-How did you become interested in that hobby?

-Did you hear Coldplay’s new album?

Hobbies are interesting topics, so make sure you’re not manipulating the entire conversation. As much as you’d like to talk about your hobbies and interests, it is important to let the other person talk as well.  Pay attention to their facial expression or body language when you’re talking to check whether they are still interested. Don’t dwell on one topic far too long. Remember, this is small talk and you want to keep it light and easy.

Occupation

The key here is to make the other person feel comfortable with a familiar topic. An occupation is what you do to make money or is anything you do towards a career. These include skills, specialty, and education.

  • What’s keeping you busy these days?
  • How did you get involved with that?
  • How long have you been in your field?
  • What do you love most about your job?

But, never ask:

  • Where do you work? Or, what is your job?

This is because not everybody has a job at the time of your conversation. Or worst, that person may just have been fired.

  • -How much money do you make? Or, what’s your salary?

This is because generally, talking about money at such a personal level is impolite.

Passion

The goal here is to listen and learn. This is an opportunity to learn something new from the other person. When you talk about passion, don’t worry too much about making a mistake with your English or how you’ll respond. This is a good opportunity to listen and show genuine interest. Passion includes what you really want to do, what motivates you, your dreams in life, and plans or a project for the future.

  • What things excite or inspire you?
  • If given a chance to travel, what are the top 3 countries you’d like to visit? Why those places?
  • Any plans for the summer?
  • What will you do once you finish college?
  • What will you do once you graduate?

If the person mentions painting something, doing a photography project, or getting involved in volunteer work, you can ask:

  • What or who inspired you to do that?
  • What will you do when you finish that project?

 

If you want to be good at making small talks, you need to make it as natural as possible and not make it feel like a forced dialogue. Here are crucial points to keep in mind to be effective in socializing:

 

  1. Always answer the question to avoid awkwardness.
  2. Don’t turn your back on the person or give them an ugly stare when they are the ones who initiate the conversation. So basically, don’t be a snob.
  3. Don’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. After answering the question with yes or no, don’t just stop there. You can offer a little explanation, description, or some detail to make your answer more interesting.
  4. Ask another question after you’ve answered their question. This shows that you are responding and you are engaging with the other person.

 

So now you may ask, “Why bother? Why even do small talk?” Here are the benefits that you’d enjoy:

  • It will practice your English speaking skills.
  • This makes people feel comfortable about being around you.
  • It will create a connection and will possibly start a lasting friendship.
  • It teaches you to be friendly in social events.
  • It allows you to exchange information without being too personal.
  • Even if you’re good at socializing already, the tips and techniques discussed here will help you become even better.

So, enjoy breaking the ice. Break the silence and avoid awkward moments.


author
I have a passion for the English language because it is such a powerful tool for creativity and personal development. I've been writing articles since I was in High School. I represented my school in English writing competitions in the city, regional, and national levels. When I was in college, I wrote a short story which was published in the University Literary Portfolio. In 2006, I worked as a call center agent in Cebu City. In 2007 up to 2008, I worked as an English accent trainer in a startup call center company. I have also been offering ESL lessons as a freelance tutor since February 2016.