You’re about to go home from work. There’s a colleague standing next to you as both of you wait in front of the office elevator.
If you choose to stay quiet, it can get awkward – almost as if you’re ignoring each other.
Or maybe you log into a video call meeting, and it turns out that you’re only the second person to arrive – after the host. The two of you stare at each other for a few seconds.
There’s no strict social rule that says you have to speak up, but situations like this are a chance to engage in small talk. Chatting with other people isn’t limited to casual settings such as when you’re around strangers at a party or you run into an acquaintance at the grocery store. Plenty of times at work, you’ll have to reach out and get a conversation going with someone you barely know.
Read on to find out about how to greet people and make small talk in English – all while staying professional.
Building Relationships with Small Talk
You can think of small talk as polite conversations about light topics, usually with people that you’re not close to. It’s meant to break the ice so you and the other person can get to know each other a little.
When you’re making small talk, you might say:
- How are you doing these days?
- It’s raining really hard outside right now.
- This event is pretty fun, huh?
It can be tempting to consider small talk as unimportant compared to, say, heart-to-heart conversations with close friends. However, to build a connection with anyone, you almost always have to start with small talk.
There’s a psychological study that says people need to spend around 50 hours with someone to consider them a casual friend rather than an acquaintance. Go for friend status, and that’ll take 80-100 hours. That’s a lot of time – and a huge number of those hours will consist of small talk at first as a way of making people comfortable with each other.
Small Talk in Business English
Compared to more reserved cultures, English-speaking countries place a high value on greetings and small talk. In fact, knowing how to make small talk is part of the soft skills that many English-speaking employers and companies are looking for.
Small talk is usually expected in these situations – pretty much when there’s silence between you and the other person and neither of you are busy:
- Before and after a meeting
- Networking or industry events
- Bumping into a colleague or client
- Waiting with someone
Of course, there’s also a time to not make small talk. For example, in the middle of a meeting would be a bad time because it would be seen as a distraction from work. If you’re not sure, check what other people around you are doing – if they’re chit-chatting, then you can probably relax and strike up a conversation too.
While this can be fun in itself, that’s not your only incentive for getting comfortable with greeting people and making small talk in English. The more at ease your colleagues or clients are around you, the better you’ll be able to work together, and the more your career will benefit.
Knowing business English vocabulary is only one half of the puzzle – the other is having strong soft skills so you can talk to people with confidence. Both of these are covered in the Creativa Business Meeting Mastery Course. It has engaging, high-quality video courses that help you present your best self in English.
Aside from learning native business English phrases, you’ll get to watch realistic reenactments that go deep into using your soft skills so you can be more persuasive and effective at work. Here’s a free video straight from the course to get you started.
Top Five English Greetings
Before diving straight into small talk, you typically greet the other person first. While “Hello!” or “Hey!” can be a relaxed but effective way to talk to friends, you can opt for more formal greetings in a professional environment.
We’ve picked out five English greetings that you can adapt to different work situations. For a handy cheat sheet, click here to download a free PDF with exercises on English greetings and openers that’ll help you sound friendly and personable. Greeting someone sets the tone for the rest of your conversation, and it might even decide the other person’s first impression of you.
1. Good morning / good afternoon / good evening.
Native English speakers say “hello” outside of work – but when it comes to business, this is the default greeting. It’s probably the most widely used out of all the greetings listed here. You can use it when you’re greeting one person, stepping in front of a group to present, or nodding along to a colleague as you pass by.
Naturally, the usual response to this is saying “Good morning” back, for example. As a greeting, it’s convenient in that people can either choose to start a conversation afterwards or stay in comfortable silence.
2. Hi there! I’m [name]. It’s nice to meet you!
When you’re meeting someone for the first time, this is the statement to say. Once you’ve exchanged names, you can then move on to other topics, such as asking about each other’s company or work.
The important thing to remember is to use this only with people you’ve never met before. If it turns out that it’s your second time meeting, the other person might take this to mean that you’ve completely forgotten them – which can be offensive.
3. Haven’t seen you in a while!
You can use this greeting for people that you know but haven’t met for a long time. Another alternative would be: “Long time no see!”
There are no specific rules for when you can say that it’s been a “while” since you’ve seen someone. If you work with someone every day but they’ve been away on a business trip for a week, that can count as “a while.” On the other hand, it also applies to business contacts that you haven’t talked to in a few years.
4. How are you?
Similar to good morning / afternoon / evening, this is a very common greeting that you’ll hear all the time. One reason why it’s so common is that you can use it with almost anyone – and your imagination’s the limit when it comes to the response.
People can respond with “I’m doing well!”, “I’m working on this project,” “I’m on my way to a conference,” or whatever else they feel like letting you know about.
5. It’s great to see everyone here.
This greeting works well for when you’re facing a group of people who are gathering together on purpose. It could be your opening line at a meeting, presentation, or after-work party.
Most of the time, you would say this greeting only when it’s not that frequent for those people to meet up. For one, it sounds appropriate at a monthly company-wide meeting but not at a daily stand-up with your team.
Moving On to Small Talk
Now that you’ve gotten people’s attention with your greeting, you can move on to small talk. The trickiest part about making small talk is probably keeping the conversation going when you don’t have that much information about the other person.
Since coming up with conversation openers on the spot might be challenging, it’s convenient to already have a few statements prepared in case. Scroll down here to download a free worksheet with professional conversation openers that’ll help you make a positive impression from the start. Instead of fumbling around after “Hello,” you’ll be able to start the conversation smoothly right away.
Doing these will also get you into the flow:
Ask questions that will get the other person talking
Asking questions – and listening to the other person’s answer – is the foundation of small talk. However, not all questions are equally engaging – some might lead you to a dead end.
Say that you’re talking to a fellow participant at a workshop that’s held every year. You might ask any of these two questions:
- Did you attend the workshop last year too?
- How’s the workshop for you so far?
The first question is great if the other person did attend the workshop – they can go into the details and maybe even recount their experiences. However, they’re also just as likely to answer with, “No, I didn’t” – which would be a dead end in the conversation.
In comparison, the second question will get the other person talking about their opinion of the current workshop. Since both of you share the experience, you can follow up with more questions or comment on their reply.
The difference between the two is that the first is a yes-or-no question, while the second is open-ended. Asking open-ended questions broadens the conversation and gives you more topics to talk about.
Give interesting information too
Conversations are ultimately about give-and-take. You ask questions to the other person while also revealing interesting information about yourself.
While it might be flattering to keep asking questions, it can make the other person feel like they’re being interviewed when taken too far. Talking about yourself in the right amount is also helpful for the other person because both of you are coming up with ideas to keep the conversation interesting.
You: Where would you recommend eating out around here?
Coworker: Oh, I like going to this coffee shop around the corner.
You: I love coffee shops! They’re great to work in. [interesting information] What’s it like?
In this example, by mentioning that you also love coffee shops, you’re letting your coworker know that you have that in common. They can then describe the coffee shop to you in detail or ask you back about coffee shops that you like.
Avoid overly personal topics
With small talk, you’ll want to stay away from topics that are too personal, such as:
- Health problems
- Emotional issues that you’re going through
- Salary and finances
- Gossip about mutual acquaintances
Whether you’re talking about your own life or you’re curious about the other person’s, bringing up these topics can make others feel extremely uncomfortable. Controversial topics such as politics and religion are also best avoided since you might end up getting into heated debates.
All of these are doubly true in professional settings. While you can chat about these topics freely with friends, you wouldn’t bring these up with a client or a coworker out of the blue.
Best Topics for Small Talk at Work
Since not all topics would be appropriate for small talk in the workplace, what can you talk about then? These topics make for light conversation while still letting you get to know the other person:
The easiest conversation starter would be to point out something that you can physically see in your surroundings. Assuming that both you and the other person are talking to each other face-to-face, this would be instantly relatable. It takes a bit more creativity with video calls, but you can comment on the video app that you’re using or make an observation on the other person’s environment.
- This place looks pretty huge! The organizers outdid themselves this time.
- That’s a lot of books on your shelves! I’m guessing you like reading?
- It’s probably going to end up raining later. The weather has been unpredictable these days.
As long as it’s well-known enough, bringing up current events is a fast way to get small talk started. You do have to be a little careful because some current events can be controversial or the other person might not be as aware of them.
A good example of current events for small talk would be the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it’s brought up so often already, people still end up chatting about it and checking in with each other because it’s a global experience that’s still affecting everyone.
- I heard that [current events] might be coming up soon, it sounds exciting!
- How’s the [current events] situation in your area?
- Did you hear about [current events]?
If you’re in the same industry as someone, then you have an instant set of topics to make small talk about: recent developments in your industry. This is almost always going to be interesting for both of you, and you might even end up learning something new (or exchanging business cards in the process). It’s an ideal topic for networking events, conferences, and other professional gatherings.
- I was reading about [industry news]… What do you think of it?
- I’m looking forward to [industry news].
- You know, it’s interesting that [industry news]… What’s your take on that?
When you’re in a business setting, work is one of the most neutral conversation topics. You can ask the other person about their company, what they’re currently focusing on, or what exactly they do in their job or business.
From there, you can delve into topics outside of work if they bring it up. For example, they might have chosen their current job because they enjoy traveling – you can then talk about which places were their favorite to travel to.
- What are you working on currently?
- How did you get into [role or job]?
- What do you like the most about [role or job]?
For a more lighthearted approach, consider kicking off small talk by asking about the other person’s favorite books, podcasts, shows, or other forms of entertainment. You can even base your question on the other person’s role or career. An artist would most likely visit galleries frequently, while journalists would have their own set of favorite books and publications.
When it’s your turn to talk about your recommendations, just make sure that the other person would also be interested in it. For example, you can mention Netflix shows if the other person also watches Netflix – but if they don’t, simply skip to another topic.
- What’s your favorite book / podcast / show / movie?
- Do you have any [form of entertainment] that you’ve seen recently?
- Which [form of entertainment] would you recommend?
Ending Small Talk
You’ll eventually have to end the conversation. This can happen on its own – say, when an event starts and all of the participants have to quiet down.
However, you’ll sometimes have to do it yourself. Instead of walking away all of a sudden, there’s a way to end it politely.
What to Say
If you start running out of conversation topics or you have to leave for some reason, try following these steps for a smooth exit.
First, express your appreciation for the chat. You can make this even more personalized by thanking the other person for something that they specifically said.
- It’s been great meeting you!
- I’m glad I got to talk to you!
- I really appreciate how you told me about [topic].
Second, mention a reason why you’re going or at least what you’re going to do next after your chat.
- I’ll be getting more drinks over at the next table.
- I’ll be heading to a meeting after this.
- Oh, I saw my coworker over there, will say hello!
Third, hint at reconnecting with them in the future. You can either be vague with this or specifically ask for their contact information, depending on your conversation.
- See you around!
- Looking forward to talking again sometime!
- Here’s my email or [social media account] if you want to stay in touch.
What if you won’t be leaving but simply want to focus on business matters after all the small talk?
There are specific native English phrases that you can use to transition smoothly. Scroll down here to download a free PDF worksheet that shows you exactly how to do this with professional greetings and openers. It’ll drill you on what you can say to create a positive atmosphere for collaboration – and achieve successful results with your meeting.
Looking Out for Social Cues
So when exactly do you end small talk? Assuming that you don’t have a pressing reason to leave, you can look out for the following signs:
- The conversation drops off into silence, and it’s always you who’s restarting it.
- The other person is responding unenthusiastically or giving short answers without asking you questions even when you change the topic.
- They’re getting fidgety, looking around, or constantly checking their phone.
Just as social cues will clue you in on the timing, your own body language will also speak volumes to the other person. You might be saying “Hello,” but are you smiling and giving off an approachable vibe, or is your body language shouting that you’re a bit hesitant or unsure?
After all, there’s more to small talk than just vocabulary. When you master body language, intonation, and gestures on top of that, you can express your personality better and build rapport faster at work.
Now’s your chance to achieve that with the Creativa business meeting mastery course. It has an episode that’s dedicated to effective conversation openers, complete with specific terms for video calls. It also tackles how to think out loud and avoid uncomfortable silences – both of which are essential for small talk.
Together with its other video episodes, you’ll hone both your soft skills and your English business vocabulary so you can become amazing at communicating professionally in English. Curious about it? Here’s a free video that you can check out.
The more that you practice greetings and small talk in English, the more that you’ll get used to it. Still, small talk in a business setting can be more limited because you can’t ask as much about personal topics. Although there are plenty of English greetings around, some of them are more well-suited to work situations.
Hopefully, with the vocabulary, tips, and resources that we’ve listed here, you can have fun with small talk and getting to know people through your work. You never know what a simple conversation could lead to!