Small talk for those who don’t enjoy it

I work mainly with people who need to use English at work. Most people come to me because they want to improve their speaking skills, but generally it’s not the technical presentations or the detailed descriptions of their products that cause the problems.
No! It’s the small talk. I know it’s not only my language learner students who struggle with this. Many people don’t enjoy it in their first language either.

You never know exactly what the other person is going to say, or whether they will keep the conversation going. Nobody wants to stand there, feeling awkward, and wishing that they had a brilliant reply or an idea that would keep everyone talking.

I talk a lot at work and I can get most people into a conversation about something or other, but I do struggle to gather up the energy to do it sometimes. Small talk can drain me in a way that a passionate conversation about something that I care about never will.

I believe I’m not alone. There are more people like me who either can’t be bothered to fight to make themselves heard, or who don’t see the point of talking about something which is completely irrelevant to them, just to have something to say.

When I asked one of my friends why he doesn’t like small talk, he said that he didn’t want to be false and pretend to be interested in topics that bored him. I can understand this, and I feel like this sometimes, but I find it easier to focus on small talk as a tool for getting to know someone, rather than the topic, which could indeed be at best superficial and at worst a bit dull at first.

I’m not here to say it’s ok not to get involved in small talk, though I do understand it will never be a favourite pastime for some of us! We may always need to work a bit harder than those to whom it comes naturally. But I would like to offer you some tips on how to engage in the activity, even if you don’t particularly enjoy it.

Why is small talk important?

When I was younger, I had a guide dog who helped me to get around because of my visual impairment. She was a big, happy golden retriever and many people loved her.

The problem was, it was always the same. I’d settle down on the train after a long day at work, on my long commute out of London ready to read my book. Then people would decide they wanted to talk to me.

“What’s your dog’s name?”
“How old is she?”
“Isn’t she a good dog?”
“Do you know your dog’s beautiful?”

Yes, I did know my dog was beautiful, and her name and age were the same answers I gave when someone else asked me a couple of hours before!

There is nothing wrong with the questions, but when you go through the same ones again and again, it can feel a bit pointless. A bit like talking about the weather, a popular thing to discuss when nobody knows what else to say.

The thing is that the questions weren’t always pointless. Sometimes they were just a way to start a conversation.

Sometimes it never went past the “what a pretty face” stage, but sometimes it ended up with me finding out from one lady about a charity that helps lost dogs, another man recognising me from a previous conversation and giving me train information that hadn’t been announced, and a third lady became a good friend with whom I went on a couple of weekend breaks and who introduced me to some of her friends. A group of us even ended up spending Christmas together!

Without those seemingly pointless beginnings, or the general questions that I’d answered a million times before, the rest of the relationship would not have developed.

So what can you do if you don’t enjoy small talk?

Here are some tips.

#1. See it as a means to an end

Don’t think “this is pointless/boring/a waste of time”, but see it as a way of getting to know the other person and for them to get to know you. It’s the wrapping paper on the Christmas present! You can’t get to the present inside unless you first take off the wrapping paper! Don’t feel pressured into believing it’s something you’ll grow to love. Maybe you won’t, but it’s often part of the job, so if you don’t love it, settle for developing strategies that will help you to make the most of it.

2. Find common interests

If you’re worried that you’ll run out of things to say, think of some ways you can keep conversations going and avoid awkward silences. These include things like finding common interests, asking questions based on what the other person has just said, and bringing other people into the conversation.

#3. Set a time limit

If it’s a social event and you’re really not looking forward to it, set yourself a time limit. Of course it’s better if you try to enjoy yourself, but if you really struggle, it’s easier if you know you’re leaving at 10 o’clock, rather than waiting for the last person to leave. This is easier in larger groups than on a one-to-one or small group basis, but it can give you something to work towards.

Many of the online meetings that we attend now do have set time limits, and it’s easier to make your excuses and leave if things are going on a bit!

#4. Move around

This is harder in the online space, but if you’re at a physical event, try to move around. This won’t work at a sit-down meal with allocated seats, but maybe the people in a different group are talking about something to which you can contribute more. You won’t know unless you go and find out!

5. 1 to one conversations are often easier than large groups

Sometimes it’s easier to take the initiative with just one person than to find a way to fit into a conversation that is already going on, perhaps not in a direction where you have anything to say.

Can you start up a conversation with someone who’s on their own? They may well thank you for it!

6. Ask questions and actively listen

You don’t have to do all the talking. Sometimes it’s enough to ask good questions. You’d be amazed how much some people enjoy talking about themselves! Of course you don’t want it to be too one-sided, but getting other people talking is a good way to remain part of the conversation and not have to talk as much, if this is something that you feel less comfortable doing.

We call it small talk, but conversation is a give-and-take process that involves talking and listening. To be good at conversations, you have to be good at listening as well, and people definitely value it if they feel someone is really listening to them. Also, you can learn so much about other people if you actively listen, which makes it easier to develop a better relationship with them.

7. Start small

Bear in mind that you might find small talk uncomfortable, but approaching people that you’ve just met for the first time with deep and meaningful conversations has the potential to make them feel uncomfortable too! It’s all about balance! Maybe your conversation partner will get away from trivial things that you find boring, but it’s usually safer to start with safer topics!

The key word there is “start”. We never improve skills that we never use!

So, whether you love it or hate it, small talk is a part of our daily lives, and it does help to make connections with people in a way that other forms of communication can’t.

See whether you can try to make it something that works for you, rather than something to be avoided at all costs!

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    The English with Kirsty podcast

    The English with Kirsty podcast

    I’ve been podcasting for around five and a half years now. Originally the podcast was very specifically for English learners, but I found that my listeners wanted more than that, and I was getting bored of producing this fairly narrowly-focussed type of content in an already saturated podcasting space.

    What I wanted was to help people to really communicate well. To learn to be themselves in another language or their main language. To get across their thoughts and ideas in a way that makes sense and facilitates real connections between people. That’s about more than just where does the verb go in your sentence and which adjective comes first. These things are important of course, and getting them right will help your texts and speech to flow better, but they aren’t the only things that you need in order to get your message across.

    So as the podcast grew, it changed. I started to draw more on my previous work in communications, and not only my experience as a language teacher.

    I have a large percentage of listeners who are learning English, and I want to continue to help them to do that. But I also have other listeners who are interested in language in general, presentation skills tips, communicating effectively at work, and working across multiple languages or cultures.

    What can you expect on the podcast?

    To give you an idea of some of the topics I cover, I’ve embedded two episodes here. Both of these are interviews, although I do post solo episodes too.

    Episode 182 – bicultural communication

    You can listen to episode 182 here:

    Today I’m bringing you an interview with Janina Neumann, a bilingual business owner and graphic designer whom I met recently through business networking.

    Janina is a bilingual graphic designer, intercultural management trainer, and business owner of Janina Neumann Design. JND is a bilingual design company, helping clients create a social impact in the UK and abroad. Working with social enterprises, charities and councils, Janina helps clients communicate their message equally effectively across different languages and cultures. Janina speaks English and German fluently and has a keen interest in learning new languages, including French and Farsi.

    Here are some of the points that we explore in our conversation:

    • Janina’s experience of differences in communication across cultures.
    • The balance between showing an interest and getting things done.
    • Tips for anyone planning to move from Germany to the UK.
    • How learning other languages can help you to understand more about those that you already speak.
    • Staying in touch with customers and colleagues as our working environments change.

    You can find out more about Janina here:

    • Janina’s Facebook page
    • Twitter
    • Instagram
    • Janina’s YouTube channel
    • Episode 181 – communicating well to create a good first impression with customers

      You can listen to episode 181 here:

      Today I’m bringing you an interview with my friend and business mentor, Lor Bradley.

      Lor Bradley is one of the UK’s leading business strategists. Think of Lor as the epitome of understated brilliance. No fanfare. Just results. She has owned, started, scaled and sold global businesses for herself and her clients for almost 30 years. Lor is an introvert entrepreneur, prefers an easy life and is a cheerleader for building social equity. Lor is an online business mentor + trained consultant, not a business coach, so unlike most coaches, Lauryn has the practical experience and geek-ery to show you how to grow your business to 7 figures and beyond.

      Here are some of the points that we explore in our conversation:

      • Good communication as a way to build relationships
      • Communicating well to make a good first impression
      • Responding to and learning from negative feedback
      • Making sure that auto-responders and those who work for you are following your brand’s communication style
      • Lor’s resources to support women business owners.

      This is my affiliate link to Lor’s membership programme for “women and non-binary business owners who aspire to run a thriving business, build a consistent income and hang out with others who ‘get it’!”

      Also, you can find out more about Lor here:

      • Lor’s Facebook page
      • Lor’s YouTube Channel
      • Lor’s website.
      • If you liked the podcast

        If you’d like to listen to further episodes of the podcast, the easiest way is to subscribe to it wherever you usually get your podcasts.Alternatively, all previous episodes are on the podcast page of my English with Kirsty website. Alternatively, I upload the audio to my YouTube channel.

        Find out more

        I also link relevant episodes of the podcast in my monthly EwK Services newsletter. You can sign up for it using the form below.


      Communication – what people really mean – when understanding the words isn’t enough

      A couple of years ago I did some research into some of the linguistic challenges that German customers faced when moving to the UK. It wasn’t about the English language itself, and the kind of problems that non-native speakers have, but about the gap they sometimes faced between what the words meant and what the person saying them actually wanted to say.

      I also wanted to use the examples here, to show that even though something may be clear to the person making the statement, there is room for interpretation on the part of the listener. That’s why it’s always so important to communicate clearly and to reduce the chance that someone may go away with a completely incorrect interpretation of what we thought or wanted.

      So, in these examples I was talking to non-native speakers, but these misunderstandings can easily happen between native speakers too. Some people naturally interpret things more literally than others, which is why it’s always better to say what you mean and mean what you say.

      Criticism can be less harsh, but you need to be able to spot it

      Understating things

      The typical English person doesn’t jump around with excitement or fling their arms round their friends in a warm embrace. Sometimes it’s not good to take their words literally.

      “That’s not bad”, can actually be interpreted as “that’s quite good”. “I’m not doing too bad”, probably just means “I’m doing ok!”

      According to Marco, people in Germany are more direct than they are in the UK. As a result, it’s important to listen out for the hidden or understated messages because people might not spell them out for you. “I am a bit disappointed that” probably means that the person is very disappointed. We sometimes use words like “a bit” or “quite” to soften the blow, but the key words in the sentence are “I’m disappointed”.

      I know that I have been guilty of this as a teacher in the past. “I have A few minor corrections” does often mean exactly that, but sometimes it means “I’ve read your work and now I’m going to tell you about your mistakes. There were actually more than a few minor ones but I don’t want you to feel bad”.

      Sometimes people don’t mean what they say

      There are no definite rules. Sometimes, “I’ll bear it in mind” does mean exactly that. The person will take your comment on board and think about it going forward. However it can also mean “That’s a completely useless contribution, but I have to acknowledge it so as not to be impolite”.

      In the same way, “that’s interesting” can mean any number of things from it’s indeed really interesting to it’s strange or it’s completely irrelevant, let’s move on. The key here is to think about what else the person is saying, how quickly they want to move on, whether they look bored or eager to learn more.

      Let’s get to the point

      This is what Angelika had to say: “British people seem to beat around the bush a lot before they get down to business instead of getting straight to the point. It frustrates me sometimes as I just want to get on with it.”

      Sometimes English people are masters of conversation when it comes to superficial subjects such as the weather. It’s a way to break the ice. Everyone can have an opinion and it’s hard to get into a controversy unless you get into a heated debate about global warming. This may go on longer than you are used to, but plunging straight into the business details may leave people feeling that you’re not interested in them, but only the task at hand.

      Some people will feel happy spending a whole evening with you without telling you much about themselves. They may choose to open up once they know you better, or they may not. And whatever you do, don’t expect people to be open about their age. Most won’t!

      Being polite vs being honest

      Anja shared quite openly about the difficulties she faced in this area. “I found there is a different culture in how people communicate and at the start I really struggled with people being polite but actually not meaning what they said in the same way I was used to from German friends. People are a lot more polite on the surface and less straightforward, which I think can be a struggle to start with; Not just in business.”

      “It’s fine” or “it doesn’t matter” shouldn’t be taken literally if someone has a face like thunder or a scowl, or if the other person keeps going on about the thing that apparently doesn’t matter!

      People who don’t do what you expect them to aren’t necessarily being rude

      Particularly among colleagues, the salutation in emails is often dropped. So there’s no “kind regards”, “best wishes” or “have a good weekend”. Sometimes there’s just the person’s name at the bottom. Sometimes they just write your name at the top, with no “dear”, “hi” etc. Whilst I may be tempted to do that if someone is annoying me, many people do it out of habit and there is no hidden message at all. In this way, English people can offend colleagues from other parts of the world without even realising it.

      Christina said “I noticed that it is not uncommon here that people don’t greet each other while in Germany we shake hands with every colleague in the morning.”

      I would think it rude if I said “good morning” to a colleague and they didn’t answer, but I think that, generally, particularly in the big cities, we are less likely to greet people than in other parts of the world. I remember going to get a coffee in a hotel in Sweden and some people whom I didn’t know said good morning to me on the way past. I returned the greeting, but it took me by surprise because it’s not what I’m used to.

      In terms of people that you know, greeting them is normal, but many English people only shake hands the first time that they meet someone. They wouldn’t do it every day.

      Less formality

      It’s not all bad! According to Christine, the atmosphere seems much more relaxed in the UK, people joke and are not very formal.

      Christine is the second person to mention joking, and it’s true – we can be a less formal, relaxed bunch of people.

      Anne-Marie pointed out that in the UK people usually start off on a first name basis, whereas in Germany, people happily work alongside each other for years before offering the “Du”. This is true. When I worked in a previous role, even the Directors were spoken to using their first names and this was completely normal. It’s just a different kind of working culture. It doesn’t mean that we respect them any less or that we are closer to our colleagues – it’s just a different way of doing things.

      So, what does this mean for you?

      For me, as an English person, I find direct communication refreshing. You don’t waste time promising to do things that you have no intention of doing. Yes means yes and no means no. I didn’t think that we, as English people, were particularly polite, but what my German contacts tell me suggests otherwise. Maybe I’m just not typically British!

      It’s true that this article focussed on intercultural differences in communication, but I think there’s also a lesson to be learned about how we communicate with people in general. Is it really clear and obvious what we mean? Do we try to dress things up so that they sound friendly, but in doing so hide some of the core meaning? Could what we write or say be confusing to someone that doesn’t know us? If so, how can we fix it?

      If you have any thoughts on this, let me know in the comments.

      Get in touch

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