Friday, January 9, 2009

How to make small talk the British way

I'm not great with small talk. That's an understatement - I totally suck at making making conversation. You would think that the office water cooler is where you'll be able to pick up some office gossips, but you'll never be able to wrangle anything out from me.


"Hi, how's it going?"
"Er, oh… hi. Good, good." Silence reigned as I shuffled my feet, wondering whether I've turned the tap on to the maximum 'cause it's taking forever to fill up my bottle.

"So, you busy today?"
"Well, things are starting to roll a bit." What the heck does that even mean? There's glimmer of hope in the horizon as my bottle is being filled up.

"Well, catch you in a bit!" Finally, bottle's full and I'm on my way. Not exactly the best conversation, no.

However, help is on the way. After nearly two years of experience with the cashiers at Tesco, Sainsbury and M&S, I have managed to fumble along. After awhile, I do realise that there is a sure fire method of starting small talk - the British way. Below are some pet topics for the uninitiated.

Talk about the weather…
The British are obsessed with the weather. Separated with continental Europe by the English Channel, the weather experienced by the British is erratic and unpredictable.

"Horrible weather isn't it?"
"You bet, cold winds without the snow. Always at the bad end of the bargain I would say."
"Well, BBC did report that there will be a brief respite this weekend…"
"And anyone who believes the report is a fool!"
And it goes on and on….
English for Britons and Singaporeans

The love affair with the 3-letter word
Talk about the faltering economy…
With the economy meltdown and all, you can't blame the people for feeling a bit sore about those at the helm.

"Have you heard the latest? The Bank of England is going to print more money! There goes my pension plan."
"What's new? There's this talk about further lowering interest rates to 1%."
"But that's not the issue, isn't it? If the banks aren't going to lend, they aren't going to lend."
"Hear, hear!"

Talk about the transport system…
London's transport system, one of the world's oldest, is definitely not the most efficient. Bitching about it will surely score you some points.

"Sorry I'm late, couldn't squeeze up the train this morning."
"Really? I wouldn't be surprised. The very fact that the trains are still moving these days is a miracle."
"It not that bad, at least the system is still chugging along."
"Oh well, let's keep our fingers crossed for tomorrow."

Really, it's a matter of picking the right topic, isn't it?

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SheR. said...

I sometimes hate those Small Talks. But now I'm missing them..Just love those "Hi! How are you?" and when you try to squeeze out a response, the conversation starter has drifted off to the next desk..duh...

C K said...

I know what you mean. So the key thing is to ask about the other person first. Then the ball will be on the other person's court... heh heh.

kyh said...

You're not alone! I prefer to keep quiet than to start on something that I do not know how to respond. LOL.

Martin in Bulgaria said...

Small talk or complaining? Like you, I am very bad at small talk, mainly because I don't like to complain, perhaps you are the same there as well.

*lynne* said...

I fail at small talk... seriously! A big part of it is I want my words to count, so blabbing on about stuff I don't even care about is kinda a waste :p But yeah, those topics are sure to get people talking :)

Anonymous said...

Oh i recommend reading Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island - so funny i lol even in public & people stare - seriously amusing & u learn lots about the Brits - but i must say u are almost straight on about the small talk topics ;)

EastCoastLife said...

I'm not very good at making small talk too. Usually I'm so tired after talking in meetings and at presentations that I don't want to open my mouth any more after work. :)

jakill said...

I'm not going to make small talk, but I love the picture.

Dutchie said...

From a different perspective, I did missed the small talk with my neighbourhood supermart. In Sg the tow-kay would recommend some good stuff that just got in or value-for-money to stock up or just how's the family. That's a bond that binds a community. In NL, after years of going to the same shops, we never venture further than "good morning" n "hv a nice day". I'm so used to being a swift shopper now that it irritates me when a familiar conversation at the cashier's (between 2 dutch parties)holds up the queue while my frozen foods r melting by the minutes !

At work, we talked abt weekends, family, hobbies n dinner parties. That draws the line insofar that we don't invade one's private space n we never become more than colleagues. In Sg we would go swing after work n stayed closed friends.

Nomadic Matt said...

the british love to go on about the weather! it is a great conversation piece!

C K said...

It's an acquired skill really - one sentence just lead to another. At the end of the day, nothing substantial may be said but it's a conversation nevertheless. That's probably why they're called 'small-talk'.

Haha, I like your straight talking. I guess it's easier to complain then to be cheerful about something, isn't it?

Then again, most of us (me especially) aren't that well read to be able to sprout some sense on a variety of topics. I guess there are times when people just want to let go some steam. Well, I'm a good listener though. :)

Hey, I read about that book in another by a Brit (as well). Will definitely pick it up and give it a go. In fact, I'm surfing through eBay for it right now. Thanks!

Are you kidding me? I thought you'll make a great conversation partner. I'm sure you'll be able to go on and on when it comes to your pet topics. And I do mean that as a compliment. :)

Yep, and all it needs is a small water cooler. Well, a small pool of water will do just as well.

I know what you mean. It's really that context that we grew up in that matters. It's never quite the same isn't it?

You just can't go wrong with that, can you? But I'm sure you've noticed different countries have different pet conversation topics. That would be an interesting post though.

Singapore Fountain Pen said...

Nice post. Back in my old office, we had someone who earned the title of "Queen of Small Talk". It was a compliment, of course. Better than being "Queen of Gossip". Some people are just naturally gifted in engaging small talk, or put it a better way, making conversation. :)

::karinuslai:: said...

Actually I used to think that Singaporeans were "better" in some senses because we don't do so much small talk - somehow I thought this meant that we didn't "waste time" talking about "rubbish" and just got things done. But after a while I realized that it merely meant that Singaporeans were basically unable to just chat to anyone who wasn't someone that they already knew quite well - small talk is the precursor to and an integral part of conversation and the ability to engage with people whom you might not know and entertain them. And it's actually a very important skill that one needs even in business.