Vocabulary for Small Talk

This blog covers vocabulary for small talk.

What Should I Talk About?

In different countries, different topics are suitable for 'small talk' in formal and informal situations, while others are considered taboo or off-limits. Look at the suggestions below for conversation topics and then move on to the next page for some advice on each of them.




Take some time to think about these topics. While some things are perfectly suitable for everyday conversation in your society and culture, they may be taboo in other places and cultures around the world. See if you are correct on the next page…

Talking About Money

In many cultures, it is considered impolite or vulgar to discuss money or how much something costs or how much a person earns. It's best to avoid any conversation around money if you want to play it safe.


Talking About Travel

If you are at a Networking event or a conference, a good way of striking up a conversation is to talk about your journey or where you're from. Asking about someone else's journey or where they are from is a good way to get them to respond and keep the conversation going. It’s also a great way to expand your knowledge of other people’s cultures.


Talking About Politics

Politics is another area that is very controversial to discuss. Conversations around politics are best left to have with people you know quite well, especially if you want to avoid any problems or conflict. People who have differing opinions on social or political issues can be quite emotional and passionate about their views, so if you don’t know someone very well, you may find yourself getting angry at someone who thinks differently to you. If you want to talk about politics, our advice is to ensure that both you and the person you are talking to can handle opposing views without getting angry. Being reasonable and respectful will gain you a lot more respect.


Talking About Books and Films

If there is a lull in conversation or it's difficult to keep a conversation going, you can always talk about a book you have read recently that inspired you, or a film or TV series that you enjoy. It's a good way of finding out what you have in common with the person you're talking to; and who knows?…you might even get a good recommendation!


Talking About Health

While in some countries it's quite normal to talk about your cold, flu, injuries or symptoms; in a lot of cases your medical problems are considered personal. It's not generally acceptable to share them with others. The exception is if you have particular needs that need to be accommodated; for example, if you are hard of hearing or if you are a person with a disability. Complaining about an ailment can often come across as negative, so leave these kinds of discussions to have with your family or your close friends.


Talking About Family

Talking about your family is generally very acceptable. If you have a partner, wife, husband or children you should mention them. Just don't go overboard - don't start showing photos unless somebody asks; and be careful not to brag!


Talking About Religion

Sometimes it will be necessary to bring up your religious beliefs due to reasons of diet; observing a fast or holiday (Holy Day); or needing special accommodations to pray or worship. Outside of this - and much like politics - religious beliefs are a conversation topic that should generally be avoided with people you don't know very well. Emotions can be very high regarding religion, and you should be able to deal calmly and rationally with contrasting opinions if you want to maintain respect for yourself and others.

Test yourself on the vocabulary featured on the previous page


1. Which word is used to describe behaviour that is unrefined or offensive?

2. Which phrase is used to describe avoiding risks or to take precautions?

3. Which phrasal verb is used to mean to begin, initiate or start?

4. Which name means a moment of quiet or a lack of activity?

5. What is the difference in meaning between 'particular needs' and 'special needs'?

6. Which words are more politically correct ways of saying someone is 'hearing impaired' or 'differently abled'?*

*Note that both of these phrases can be insulting and are not politically correct. You should always check the correct terminology if you are not sure, because using the incorrect word or phrase around people whose opinions you aren’t aware of can be offensive. For example, ‘Hearing impaired’ is considered politically incorrect as it focuses on what a person can't do compared to what they can.

7. Which word is used to describe a minor illness?

8. Which phrase means to be very or over-enthusiastic?

9. What does the verb 'to brag' mean?

10. In this article, we use the phrase 'observe a fast'. Which of the following words also collocate with (are commonly associated with) the word 'fast'?

  • break
  • do
  • on
  • off
  • initiate



1. Vulgar

2. Play it safe

3. Strike Up

4. Lull

5. 'Particular needs' refer to specific requirements for performing a task or a job. For example: Please let us know if you have any particular needs that we can accommodate during the training.

The term 'special needs' can refer to specific requirements but also be used to describe a person who might have these requirements. For example: My daughter has special needs, so she will require a sign language interpreter in school.

My son has ASD, he has special needs. He often gets overwhelmed when there are lots of sounds and people.

6. 'Hard of hearing' and 'person with a disability'.

7. Ailment

8. to go overboard

9. To brag means to boast or show off

10. break a fast/do a fast/be on a fast

Useful Expressions and Phrases for Small Talk

Meeting colleagues and other industry professionals for the first time can be daunting, particularly if you are worried about your language skills. Some people think it is difficult to prepare for spontaneous and informal conversations, but here are some tips to get you through a simple social night out or a networking event.


Introduce Yourself with a Phrase

When you simply say, ‘Hi, I’m Peter’, it’s more challenging for the person you are talking to to find out information about you, or to know what to talk about. Try giving some additional information such as where you are from, or what area you work in. Saying “Hi, I’m Peter from Vienna”; or “Hi, I’m Denise from the Marketing Department” inspires others to ask follow-up questions about your travel or your work.


Try the FORM Technique

Research has shown that most people are happiest when talking about:

  • Family and Friends
  • Their Occupation
  • Hobbies and Recreation
  • What motivates them


Forming Questions

Forming questions is an important part of small talk, so it’s useful to have some questions around these subjects to hand. It's important when you bring up the topic of families to be open-minded. It's generally more polite in western countries to ask if someone has a partner, instead of asking if they have a husband or a wife. There is always the possibility that they might be single; in a same-sex relationship; in a relationship but not married; separated; divorced, or any other number of possibilities. In some cultures, families can be made up of two or more wives or even husbands. Asking the question in this manner allows for an answer that is comfortable for the other person, and gives them the opportunity to volunteer the amount of information they are happy to discuss.


Questions to Talk About Families

Are any of your friends here?

How are your family?

Do you have a family?

I have a daughter, do you have any children?

Do you have a partner?


How to Ask How Someone Knows Someone Else

How do you know…NAME?

How did you meet…NAME?

Do you know (name) long?


Some topics might be sensitive, so it’s best to avoid asking about romantic relationships or if someone has children, unless you know them quite well.

Talking about someone’s occupation

You might ask:

  • What do you enjoy most about your job?
  • How did you end up in…?
  • Was this the area you studied in?

In most cultures, it is considered rude to discuss things like money or a person’s salary, so it’s wise to avoid these kinds of topics.


Asking about hobbies

If you want to find out about somebody’s hobbies, you can ask:

  • What do you like to do when you’re not working?
  • Have you seen the latest…? (movie/tv series, etc.)

Or you could say:

  • I love music. Have you been to any good concerts lately?
  • Did you see the… (football/hockey/basketball) match/game at the weekend?


Asking about motivation

Asking what motivates someone is a bit more personal, so it can be a good follow-up when you have discussed some other things. This is a good opportunity to ask less direct and open-ended questions (questions designed to get the other person talking and not just give a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer!), such as:

  • Do you think you’d like to go back to study?
  • What are your main goals this year?
  • What are you hoping to (get out of/achieve at) this event/meeting?
  • Have you ever considered working in another role or area?


Listen and use fillers

It may sound obvious that you need to listen to what your conversation partner is saying, but sometimes you are so busy thinking about what to say and how, that you can forget to listen actively to what the other person is saying.


How to show you are listening

Filler words and phrases are very important in English to show that you are listening. Here are a few to look out for:

  • Hmm
  • Really?
  • That’s incredible!
  • No?
  • Are you serious? or You can’t be serious!
  • I don’t believe you!

There are, of course, many more. Using these and other filler words and expressions will also help buy you time if you need to think about what to say next!

Introducing Yourself and Initiating Conversation

Here are some tips for introducing yourself at a Networking event. Which do you think are the most important?

  • Dress confidently
  • Rehearse your introduction
  • Make a tag line
  • Think about your unique selling point
  • Make a personal connection
  • Try to find things you have in common


Here are some short sample conversations. From the language used, do you think the people already know each other or are meeting for the first time?

Conversation 1

Dave and Paul are at a launch party

Dave: Hi. Paul, isn’t it?

Paul: Yes, it is. Dave, am I right? How do you know Jenna?

Dave: Yes, I’m Dave. Jenna and I went to college together. We finished our degrees at the same time.

Paul: That must have been a while ago! What area are you in now?

Dave: I’m working with a start-up producing green refuse solutions.

Paul: That sounds interesting. I have to run, but I’d love to hear about it some other time.

Dave: Here’s my card. Give me a call anytime.


Conversation 2

Ahmed and Helga are attending a reception at a conference

Ahmed: Excuse me, could you tell me if this is vegetarian?

Helga: Em, I don’t think so. I think there is ham in it. Do you eat fish?

Ahmed: No

Helga: I don’t know much about the catering, sorry. Maybe one of the waiters can help you. I’m Helga from Munich. Where are you from?

Ahmed: I came from Cairo yesterday.

Helga: How was your journey?

Ahmed: It was terrible, the flight was delayed by three hours; the food was terrible, and my taxi didn’t arrive to meet me at the airport.

Helga: That’s awful. Eh, excuse me while I get a cup of coffee.


Conversation 3

Wes and Chris are at a networking event run by their company

Chris: Hi, I'm Chris from Kentucky. Have you ever been there?

Wes: Em, no actually.

Chris: You should visit. It’s a beautiful state, lots of horses and some great bourbon! I didn’t get your name?

Wes: It’s Wes. I work in the Marketing Department. Nice to meet you.

Chris: Great to meet you, Wes. Marketing always seems so exciting. It must be hard to stay on top of all the latest trends.

Wes: Well, it can be at times, but we have a talented team. I’m training in Video Production, which is driving a lot of sales in the industry at the moment. What do you do?

Chris: I am actually part of the sales team in the States! We had some great responses to your latest campaign; I’d love to talk to you a bit more about it.

Wes: It's always great to get some feedback. Why don’t I give you my number and we can arrange to meet while you’re here?

Chris: Sounds good. It's 141 09 87 64.

Wes: Sorry, I didn’t quite get that. Would you mind giving it to me again?

Chris: Sure, it’s 141 09 87 64. Oh, is that Teegan over there? I must introduce myself. Catch you later.


Out of the three conversations, it is only Dave and Paul who have met before. We know this because they recognise each other:

Dave: Hi. Paul, isn’t it?

Paul: Yes, it is. Dave, am I right?


The conversations feature some useful vocabulary for different aspects of networking and small talk. Maybe you spotted the following?

What does Paul say when he has to go?

I have to run.

How will Paul contact Dave in the future?

Dave gives Paul his card.

How does Ahmed begin the conversation with Helga?

Excuse me, could you tell me if this is vegetarian?

Why doesn’t the conversation go very well?

Ahmed gives short answers; he doesn’t ask Helga questions, and he is very negative.

How does Helga excuse herself politely?

Excuse me while I get a cup of coffee.

What training is Wes doing, and why is he doing it?

He is training in Video Production, which is driving a lot of sales in the industry at the moment.

What does Chris say to express his interest in talking to Wes in the future?

I’d love to talk to you a bit more about it.

How does Chris manage to leave the conversation?

Oh, is that Teegan over there? I must introduce myself. Catch you later.

Categories: : English learning tips