The Art of Small Talk

by / Thursday, 07 November 2013

Avoid sex, religion and politics. And it’s always a good idea to talk about the weather. – These are two of the most commonly given pieces of advice about making conversation in English.

It is not bad advice, but it’s not great either. It is a good idea to get people talking about themselves – very few people don’t like talking about this. And for getting-to-know-you questions, you need questions in the ‘present simple’ tense. Asking people about their job (boss, duties, challenges…,) home (area, nightlife…,) and friends and family (personality, appearance, jobs…,) will always get people talking, even if they’re talking about places and people they don’t like.

Apart from using the present simple tense, natural questions forms are key: “What is her profession?” is good, grammatically , as is “What is his character?” and “What are your hobbies?” The only problem with these questions is that native speakers never (or almost never) use them. If the answer is, ‘He works in a bank,’ the questions is ‘What does he do?’ If the answer playing football and having a beer/coffee with friends,’ the question is ‘What does he like to do?’ and if the answer is ‘kind, funny and smart,’ then questions is ‘What is she like?’ (not ‘What is her character?’ and definitely not ‘How is she?’)

Present simple question forms are the grammar we use to investigate things (or people), and natural ones will help a conversation flow, so try and remember the questions people ask you in the street, not just the ones in your grammar book.

If you run out of ideas, you can always try, “So…d’you come here often?” Just be careful who you ask.