Oh, small talk. Those little conversations that you have around the coffee machine, at a restaurant, or while waiting for the meeting to begin. It sounds so simple, right? Just talk about the weather, sports, ask a few questions to show interest in the other person, and then move on to business.
Wrong. Ask one or two wrong questions and you can give the impression that your insensitive, have bad social skills, or…worse.
But small talk is a funny little thing, and small talk in English (or any foreign language) can sometimes make you ask stupid questions. Sorry to be blunt.
Maybe its’ nerves. Maybe its’ the desire to avoid awkward silences. Maybe its’ just the first question that you think of and suddenly, it just comes out of your mouth.
Dont’ ask those kinds of questions. Don’t be that guy (or gal).
Some examples? Good thing you asked!
Here are 5 questions that I’ve often heard in small talk, and that just shouldnt’ be asked.
Question 1. Do you have children?
It seems like an oh-so-innocent question. After all, family is an ok topic, right? Well, yes and no. What if the person doesnt’ want kids? Or does want kids and cant’ have them? Or recently had a miscarriage? Or just tried and tried, suffered a phase of depression, and is just now accepting that they wont’ have kids. Ok, maybe thats’ exaggerating, but you get the point.
Instead, listen carefully to clues in the conversation. Does the person say “With my son, we went hiking last weekend” or maybe “Its’ not always easy sleeping enough with a baby at home.” Then, you can ask about their kids.
Question 2. So how much do you make as a (insert job title here)?
Another one that seems obvious, but sometimes just comes out. This can especially be a risk if your’e making small talk with Americans and you think that they talk about money like they talk about the weather. OK, money is not a taboo topic, but there are some questions that you just dont’ want to ask unless you really, really know the person.
Instead, just ask about business in general, like with the question “Hows’ business going?” Or ask questions about their job in general: “How do you like working as a (job title here)?”, “What sort of things do you do as a (job title here)?” or “Why did you decide to become a (job title here)?”
Question 3. Do you know whats’ in that?
Clearly, this is a question that you might be tempted to ask at a restaurant, at the company cafeteria, or just as your colleague gets an industrial chocolate-coated waffle out of the vending machine. No one wants a lesson on what they should or shouldnt’ eat just because you think that its’ better to eat organic, vegetarian, gluten free, local, or whatever. No one said you have to eat it!
Instead, just give your opinion on something else on the menu (or in the vending machine), maybe say why you like it. For example, “Those apple chips are pretty good! I had some the other day, and was surprised at how good they are. Plus, theyr’e natural.” Keep it positive, and dont’ judge.
Question 4. Who are you planning to vote for?
This is another one that you might be tempted to ask an American colleague, especially with all the talk about the presidential elections this year. Politics isnt’ a taboo subject altogether, but there are right ways and wrong ways of approaching it. Dont’ be determined to convince the other person that your’e position is right and dont’ start a heated debate. This is not the time.
Instead, ask more open-ended questions like “What are your thoughts on the elections?” This will break the ice and the other person will express as much of their political views as theyr’e comfortable doing. They may even say who theyr’e planning to vote for.
Question 5. Its’ not too hard (being a single mother / living away from your family / getting divorced / etc.)?
“Yes, it is actually, and sometimes I get really sad thinking about it,” thinks your conversation partner as they try so hard not to start crying. Why would you ever ask this? Maybe it isnt’ too hard, but more likely, it is very painful at times and its’ something that can really stir up strong emotions. Sure, you mean well, but this is just a painful question for someone in that situation.
Instead, focus on something positive. For example, ask “What do you like about living in a different country?” or “What are your plans for after your divorce?” Of course, for delicate situations like this, dont’ initiate the topic. Let the other person bring it up, and follow their lead.
None of these topics are taboo: family, money, food, politics, and personal life, but theres’ a right way and a wrong way to approach them. You can either be direct (and give the impression that your’e a bit insensitive) or go about it in a more polite, indirect way (and make the other person feel comfortable and enjoy talking to you).
The balls’ in your court now…
Can you see yourself making these mistakes? Then get 3 free lessons on how to make successful small talk in English. Its’ simple. Just click here and sign up.
An American living in France since 2004, Christina coaches clients to better communicate in English. With her YouTube channel Speak Better, Feel Great TV, she is on a mission to boost the English level of French people everywhere. Sign up and youl’l get a free video lesson every week!