#245: How to Give GREAT Answers to Small Talk Questions in English

by | Jul 13, 2022 | 7 comments

When you’re in a small talk conversation in English, how can you be sure that your answers to small talk questions are just right?

Recently I received this comment about answering English small talk questions.

“I’m good with asking questions that initiate conversation, but I always get nervous and tripped up when it’s MY turn to answer and share about myself.

In English-speaking culture, what is expected of you in small talk conversations? And how do you find the balance between adding appropriate details but not saying too much?

Before we get to great answers to small talk questions in English, if you’re struggling with the right questions to ask,  you’ll be happy to know I have several lessons on English small talk questions

They are, in fact, my most popular lessons here on Youtube.

But for today, let’s shift our focus to answers. How to give great answers to small talk questions in English so that you feel confident and comfortable in the conversation.

Give Great Answers to Small Talk Questions in English — Step-by-Step

When it comes to having a successful small talk conversation in English, there are 3 key questions you have to consider:

  • What is expected of you in the small talk conversation based on who you are speaking to and the situation you’re in? 
  • How much do you share in the small talk conversation with the person you’re speaking to? What is too much? What is not enough?
  • How do you get ideas of what to say in your answer (so that you don’t feel stuck)?

We’ll answer each question with concrete examples using common small talk questions in English so you have absolute clarity on how to have great answers.

So, what is expected of you in an English small talk conversation?

This is an ideal time to remember that language is culture.

And in English-speaking culture, small talk is 

  • A form of politeness – it’s a way to acknowledge the humanity of another person
  • A way to establish a connection with someone else – it’s a way to tip toe into something more meaningful IF there is a connection
  • A conversation of quick back and forth or give and take… in other words, I ask you a question, you say a little. You ask me a question, I say a little. No one dominates the conversation.

 

That leads me to what small talk is not. It is

  • Not expected to be profound or lengthly; you don’t need to have a long story prepared. And you don’t need to worry about impressive, advanced-level vocabulary. Small talk is supposed to be simple. Quick. Easy.

 

Lastly, small talk is most often had with people we don’t know well…

A colleague you regularly see at work but do not have a close relationship with. A peer at a networking event or conference. A neighbor down the street.

Or small talk is a polite conversation with people don’t know at all and may never see again. 

The woman at the checkout counter in the grocery store, the Uber driver, the dental hygienist, the stranger you sit next to on the airplane.

 

With all of that in mind, what is expected of YOU when you’re answering small talk questions?

  1. You are present and polite. (No looking at your phone.)
  2. You give and take. No dominating the conversation. No lengthy stories. And no one-word answers (we’ll talk more about that in a moment).
  3. You listen carefully to find possible connections.
  4. You are prepared to share something personal about yourself. It doesn’t have to be deeply personal or too serious. But you do need to be ready to share details about yourself. This is how connections get made.

But for now, this is the perfect time to transition to the question of how much information should you share in the small talk conversation with the person you’re speaking to? 

 

What is too much? What is not enough?

When it comes to how much to share, there are 3 considerations:

  • What is your relationship to the person you’re speaking to?
    • Is it a total stranger? A vague acquaintance? A coworker you see daily?
  • What is the situation or context?
    • Is it a random conversation on the street? A conversation while you’re in the checkout line of the grocery store? A Monday morning at the office?
    • Are you trying to build a relationship?
    • Are you just passing time, using small talk as a form of entertainment (for example, when on a flight?
  • And how long will you be together?
    • Are you talking to a stranger on the street where there is a red light? 
    • Are you chatting with someone on a 3-hour flight? 
    • Is it a quick conversation while pouring your first cup of coffee at work?

 

When considering how much to share or what details to share, here are some guidelines:

  • If the other person is a stranger, focus on broader, general responses. When asking questions, focus on general topics like the weather, current events, or even travel. The goal is to keep conversations polite, easy, and light. 
  • If the other person is a coworker, neighbor, or acquaintance, you could delve into the lighter side of the family/personal plans, or even ask for their advice/opinions on relatable topics.

In other words, the stronger the connection, the more details you might share and the more in-depth you might go into a topic.

With small talk, remember the emphasis is on that back and forth. 

If the person you’re speaking to wants more details, they’ll ask. If they want a longer story, they’ll tell you.

Before we talk about the last question on HOW to identify details to share so you don’t feel stuck, let’s talk about those 15-minute Uber drives or those 3-hour flights when a stranger starts to chat?

 

A polite way to bring it to a close if you’re not interested in speaking is to end on a positive note and close the conversation

Here are a few examples:

  • That’s really interesting. Well, if you don’t mind, I’m going to catch up on my work email that I missed while on the flight.
  • Well, I hope the rest of your day goes well. I’m going to just check my email to make sure I didn’t miss anything while on my flight.
  • I hope you have fun visiting your family. And, if you don’t mind, I’m going to try getting a nap in for the remainder of the flight. I had to get up pretty early this morning. (Then you can put on your headphones and close your eyes.)
  • It sounds like you had a fantastic time on your vacation! That’s great. Well, I think I’ll get back to my book. I don’t get too much time to myself so I relish the time I have on this flight to read.

 

However, IF you have enjoyed the small talk conversation and IF you’ve found a connection, you can certainly keep it going.

 

And now, our 3rd key question for how to ensure great answers to small talk questions in English: HOW do you get ideas of what to say in your answer (so that you don’t feel stuck)?

I have 3 quick tips for you:

  • Use question words
  • Share bite-sized information
  • Add hooks with conjunctions to expand

 

Tip 1: Question words are those wh- and h- question words such as who, what, when, where, why, how, how many, how much, how long, how often, etc.

When someone asks you a small talk question such as: 

  • “Your garden looks beautiful. What is your secret to growing healthy plants?”
  • “It seems so busy today. How have you been holding up?”
  • “What do you enjoy doing when you have some time to yourself?”

Quickly consider those question words to help you identify a key, relevant detail.

For example:

What is your secret to growing healthy plants? Who did you learn the secret from or where did you learn it?

Or what are your hobbies? How often do you have time for them? 

 

Once you have a detail identified, Tip 2 comes into play. Share bite-sized information.

Remember, you don’t need a lengthy story or excessive details. 

Just one or two bits of information that directly answer the question are more than enough. If someone wants to know more, they’ll ask.

For example, if my neighbor says: 

  • Your garden looks beautiful. What is your secret to growing healthy plants?

I might respond with:

  • Thank you. I guess I’ve always had a bit of a green thumb because when I was a kid, my family had a big garden. One thing I learned is never over water. What about you? Do you have a garden?

Similarly, if I’m chatting with a student and she asks, 

  • “What do you enjoy doing when you have some time to yourself?”

I’ll consider 1-2 details and keep my response bite-sized with:

  • Well, I don’t have a whole lot of free time so when I do get time for myself, I try to stay offline. For the last couple of years, I’ve been learning to paint. What about you? What’s your go-to activity when you have time?

Tip 3: Add hooks with conjunctions to expand.

A hook is something you say that keeps your listener engaged or interested. We do that by expanding on our answers with details. 

To do that effectively, conjunctions are important to keep in mind and they can help you come up with ideas of what to say. 

Conjunctions are words such as because, since, and, so, but, etc.

For example, if someone were to ask how you’re doing, the following phrases may be helpful for questions related to your day or wellbeing:

  • My day’s been great because
  • I’m doing pretty well since
  • Great, thank you. I’m looking forward to it and
  • It’s been a little difficult because… 
  • My day’s been ok, so I…
  • It could be better but

And if we review the two examples I just shared with you, you’ll notice the conjunctions because and so helped me to expand on my answer with an interesting detail: 

  • Thank you. I guess I’ve always had a bit of a green thumb because when I was a kid, my family had a big garden. One thing I learned is never over water. What about you? Do you have a garden?
  • Well, I don’t have a whole lot of free time so when I do get time for myself, I try to stay offline. For the last couple of years, I’ve been learning to paint. What about you? What’s your go-to activity when you have time?

Now tell me… 

What was your aha moment today? What surprised you or was most helpful to you?

Also, if you’ve been successful with small talk in English, what helped? Share your top recommendations with others in the Speak Confident English Community.

The best place for you to share (and learn from others in the SCE Community), is in the comment section below.

    ~ Annemarie

     

    P.S. Are you looking for a community to provide support, help you stay motivated, and guarantee that you grow? Check out our Confident Women Community.

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