The Art of Small Talk

Any Questions?
Who?, What?, When?, Where?, Why?, and How?

Many students want to learn how to “make small talk,* in other words the art of* casual conversation.

My husband and father are both introverts (meaning that social interactions drain their energy).  However, they are both experts at socializing.  More often than not*, they are “the life of the party*”!

Do you know anyone like this?!  My husband once explained, “The best defense is a good offense!*”  In language learning (and teaching) the art of asking good questions is invaluable (= beyond value, extremely important).

Here is a secret: People LOVE talking about themselves and their interests, goals and experiences. Those who can ask good questions learn a lot, and others like being around them.  Although, the real key is to develop a  genuine interest in others. Hopefully, once you start asking good questions, you’ll discover that others are a lot more interesting than you realized.

As a journalism major, I was taught to seek answers to the “Five W’s and H” which you can find in the caption under the picture above.   Questions can also be inspired by :

  • current events: “Did you hear about (the current event)?”  This can be rephrased as “What do you know about…..?” so, these are “what” questions.
  • the setting: “Have you ever been here before?”  This can be rephrased as “Where have you been?” so, these are “where” questions.
  • the weather: “Is this weather typical for this time of year?” or “Isn’t this weather great?!” The second question is an example of a “rhetorical question,” which is a question that doesn’t require a response.  The person may respond with a smile or groan, which is okay!  The goal is to start a conversation, so follow up with another question, like “What’s your favorite type of weather?”
  • fashion (a great icebreaker [=  conversation starter] to use with women): “Where did you find that beautiful dress/hand-bag/bracelet?!”, or “Who is your stylist? Your hair is so pretty!”
  • sports (a great icebreaker to use with men): “Can you believe those guys (or whatever the name of your sports team is)?”  This is another rhetorical question. The person may just shake their head,  so follow up with another question, like “How long have you been a (name of team) fan?” (A great question for anyone wearing a team t-shirt or hat too!)

These resources have some awesome questions to inspire you and help you master the “art of questioning” (“art” here means a skill which has been mastered).

Memorize a few of your favorite icebreakers.

  • on-line:  ESL Conversation Questions this link is to the “small talk” page which has excellent conversation starters for teachers and students alike. But this web-site has other questions arranged by topic, and categorized for purpose (like using comparatives, or tenses).
  • on-line: Heads Up English this web-site has questions and other material organized by skill level: Beginner, Lower-Intermediate, Upper-Intermediate, and Advanced.
  • book: The Complete Book of Questions, by Gary Poole One of my students purchased this book to keep in his car.  As he and his wife traveled they used the question book to inspire their conversations.  The questions are written by an American, so they often provide great opportunities to discuss American culture and traditions. (For example: #45. What makes you tick?, #336. What was an act of kindness you offered or received?, #539. What does it mean when two people are said to have “chemistry”?)

Also, please share your own tips or resources in the comment section below!

Thanks! Michele       My Virtual English

One thought on “The Art of Small Talk

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