Most of us struggle with chitchat — it doesn’t matter whether English is your first language or not, English speaking practice can help. And during this time of year, with its abundance of Christmas parties, family gatherings, and New Years Eve celebrations, ’tis the season for small talk. Whether you like it or not, whether you struggle with it because of an accent or for other reasons entirely, figuring out how to engage in small talk can actually benefit you.
In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2014, commuters at a Chicago-area railway station who engaged in conversations with strangers reported “significantly more positive” and “no less productive” commutes than those who rode in solitude. Another study in 2014 showed daily interactions with acquaintances, like your bus driver, contribute to well-being. These findings are consistent with a 2013 study in Scientific American that linked more small talk to a brighter mood.
With so many benefits, it's essential for us to get more comfortable with chitchat. With this in mind, we've put together some of Change Your Accent's favourite English speaking practice tips for small talk:
- Consider distance - If you’re less than 10 feet away from someone, acknowledge them with a smile or nod. If you’re less than 5 feet away from someone, this may be a good time for small talk. Start with a simple greeting and introduction.
- Evaluate your partner and situation - Is your small talk with a stranger or someone familiar? Is your conversion in the office or at a party? Your partner and situation will guide you in determining what to talk about.
- Find a common topic - This requires a bit of digging and you will have to explore and find common ground. Asking questions like “How do you know the host?” or “Have you been to this event before?” can help.
- Stick with the topic - Instead of going from topic to topic, find one subject and dig deeper. Remember, talking about something that matters and connects you with your partner is important. Sports, family and travel are often good topics.
- Don’t forget about curiosity, compliments, and commiserating - The three C’s go a long way. If you’re curious and use small talk to learn something new, you will likely have a great interaction. Genuine compliments can also have a big impact. And don’t forget the effects of commiserating — there’s nothing we like better than feeling the pain together (e.g., if you’re stuck in a long line-up, talk about that).
- Leave gracefully - Give a subtle cue that you’re about to end the small talk. Rather than saying “Nice talking to you” and abruptly ending the conversation, try something like “Before we have to take off…”.
And one more word of advice — we tell clients who are from other countries and working on accent reduction that they will get better with chitchat over time. Practice is the key. The same principle holds true for non-ESL speakers. And yes, research supports this too — according to 'shyness expert' Bernardo Carducci from Indiana University, small talk improves with practice and the benefits are significant. So keep at it and try to connect using chitchat during the holidays. After all, ’tis the season.