Mastering your English fluency doesn’t necessarily begin and end with how flawlessly you can execute the pronunciation, syntax and seemingly endless number of grammar rule exceptions. Sometimes, it’s all in the supposedly trivial small talk. Different languages and cultures invariably approach light banter differently, which is why the hesitation to embrace small talk in English for some learners is often cultural in nature.
Babbel Live teacher Ethan encourages his students to practice the art of small talk, because this is often a key missing ingredient to sounding more natural — at least in American English.
“Many students (French, German, Russian, etc.) fail when it comes to small talk and other conversation, in ways that go beyond language limitations,” says Ethan. “When questions like How are you? are perceived as purely superficial and unimportant, students miss a key point of American culture: a genuine interest, enthusiasm and positivity when dealing with others, including strangers. I like to ask often really basic, ‘stupid’ questions as conversation starters, and some students recognize this as a ball to hit out of the park, while others choose to respond tersely.”
If this is a skill that still feels kind of awkward for you, try practicing some of the most common questions and responses you’re likely to encounter when making small talk in English.
- How are you?*
- What’s new with you?
- Do you have anything fun planned for the weekend/summer/holidays?
- What do you do?**
*In American culture, it’s common to use “How are you?” as a way to ease into conversation, and it’s not necessarily expected that you answer this question truthfully, especially if you don’t know the other person very well. This might seem strange if you come from a culture where you don’t ask questions like this unless you expect a real answer, but for the sake of successfully navigating a casual social interaction, saying “I’m good, how are you?” is a fine way to respond.
**It can be impolite in some cultures to ask someone what they do for a living, but it’s completely expected and normal among Americans as a way to break the ice with a new acquaintance. It’s also okay to bring up your hobbies and passion projects if those things are more important to you than your day job.