How to Excel at Small Talk in a Foreign Language

Everyone loves meeting new people and making friends, yet many of us have felt slightly uncomfortable doing so in a foreign language. Non-native speakers can be discouraged to speak up in front of more fluent foreigners or natives for a variety of reasons.

Sure, there is always at least a tiny bit of fear of not knowing what to say next. Awkward pauses and silence, looking at the ceiling trying to think of a question… Haven’t we all been there?

Well, fear no more! Our teacher Maja has put together this handy guide at how to become better at small talk in a foreign language.

The basics of small talk

Small talk, or chit-chat, is rather easy. It basically means having an informal conversation about everything and nothing, normally with people you don’t know well or are meeting for the first time. It is a good way to get to know some basic information about the person, and is definitely an essential step to making meaningful friendships and connections.

The basic rules are: relax, be yourself, make people around you feel comfortable by smiling, listen to what they have to say, always follow up, and don’t get too personal too soon!

Now, in more concrete terms, small talk may differ from one social situation to another. That said, we have prepared short instructions and ideas about what to say depending on where you are. Be assured that these will spark a conversation and take the anxiety away a.s.a.p.!

At a party

Alright, first things first. Have you ever found yourself at a party/social event where you barely knew anyone and felt like it was so hard to initiate a conversation? Yes, most people would opt out for asking the classics – Where are you from? What do you do? How do you know the host?

If you run out of those, or would simply like to be different and remembered by the people you talked to the next day, try complimenting the outfit of the person you’re talking to (I love your shoes! Where did you get them?), talking about the food (Those cheese puffs are amazing, don’t you think?), or making a comment about the place (This bar looks awesome! Do you come here often?) and the music (Arctic Monkeys are one of my favorite bands! Do you know they are coming to Budapest next month?).

So many general questions can follow from these conversation starters and, in no time, you will be able to find some common ground with the person you’re conversing with which is how all friendships start.

At the office

Whether you’re newly employed, work at a place which employs so many people it’s impossible to know all of them, or you simply are not BFFs with everyone at the office, chances are high you’ll need to resort to small talk at some point of your work day.

If you really want to get to know a particular person, we’d recommend that you just buy them a cup of coffee (I thought you could use a cup of coffee! I hope cappuccino is fine!), and take it from there.

Other than that, it is also always entertaining to talk about the upcoming weekend (What’s on the agenda this weekend?), or try to bond over a commonly shared problem or frustration (People are so difficult to work with on Mondays!). If all fails, feel free to bring the current affairs in (Have you watched Melania Trump’s speech?) because everybody has an opinion about politics! But be careful with what you’re getting yourself into with that one.

In public

If you’re feeling super brave, you might want to initiate a conversation with interesting strangers you meet while walking in the city or waiting for something in a long, boring queue. This is particularly useful if you lack friends who speak English. It’s also a great way to practice your target language. Although approaching people at first might seem difficult, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

We find it rather easy to bond with people who have pets, so if you see someone who speaks English, or in any other language you’re trying to learn, and looks nice to talk to, try approaching them by commenting on their dog (Oh! I used to have a Shiba Inu, too! What’s his name?).

Or, say, you find yourself waiting to pay your bills, or a ticket fine or just registering in a new city, it’d be nice to bond with other foreigners or help one if they’re new in your hometown (I can see that you don’t speak Hungarian, can I help you in any way?). Even if they don’t need help, it is never a bad idea to have someone to chat with and potentially make new friends (Coming here on a Monday is never a good idea. It looks like we’re going to be here for a while, huh?).

We as expats know that some of the most fun friendships while living abroad start exactly like that, so it won’t hurt to try.

Other benefits of small talk

Excelling at small talk will help you in many other situations, too.

Surely, you may find yourself in need of small talk even with people you know. It is not odd to think that you have nothing new to share with your friends or colleagues, especially those you spend a lot of time with every day. Asking each other random, informal, not too personal questions can actually be a lot of fun, even when you’re out for dinner or a drink.

Remember, when completely desperate, the Internet has created awesome tools like this random conversation starters generator, which doesn’t only give you awesome ideas to help you excel at small talk, but could actually also assist you in preparing for your IELTS or TOEFL speaking exam (a side note tip!).

Learning random facts about people is always fun, so we hope you’ll have a great time becoming a small talk master, and that increasing your number of contacts in English will assist you in becoming a more confident speaker, too!