business English small talk

Walking the talk – part one

July is all about small talk and we continue to explore the topic with a guest post by John Allison about small talk & the Business English language learner. John Allison is a teacher, teacher trainer, and lead author of The Business. John also enjoys writing music and speculative fiction, evidence of which you can see on his blog  ‘John’s words and music’.


Some years ago, a lady in our beginners’ class would invariably greet us with a cheery ‘Fine, thanks’ as she swept through reception into her classroom. Noticing that she hardly even waited for her cue, one of our cheekier teachers took to varying the line of enquiry from ‘How are you?’ to ‘Still raining, is it?’ or ‘Back for more then, are you?’ Oblivious to any change in her scenario, our student unhesitatingly fired off her trusty ‘Fine, thanks,’ much to the merriment of the rest of the staff-room.

Of course it’s easy to get a laugh at a beginner’s expense, but in fact this lady was demonstrating, albeit in a very limited way, one of the key strategies for successful small talk: stick to the familiar patterns of conventional exchange, and you won’t go far wrong. Unfortunately, small talk has the irritating habit of exceeding its brief and dragging you off, kicking and screaming, into full-blown socializing. Keep chatting for more than a couple of minutes, and the narrow but well-trodden path of social niceties widens into a vast lexical and moral minefield of opinion, gossip, culture, politics, sex, religion and worse!

Even for native-speakers, typical social situations like cocktail parties require a multitude of skills in logistics, coordination and etiquette: we are expected to juggle canapés, glasses of fizz and complete strangers; they are required to be nibbled, sipped and entertained (no mixing and matching please), all this without spitting, snorting, choking, belching or spilling stuff down one’s (or even worse, someone else’s) shirt or frock!

For learners of English however, these are only minor worries. Teachers of Professional English are often taken aback when, having prepared a nice meaty lesson on presenting financial results or trouble-shooting technical problems, we are (sometimes) politely but (usually) firmly informed that what’s much more important is the complex business of sharing coffee breaks and going out to dinner! For the foreigner, socializing in English represents a veritable assault-course of linguistic hurdles to be overcome.

In the second part of this blog (to be published next Wednesday), I’ll be examining just why socializing is so difficult. ‘I’m just going to get a re-fill. Can I get you anything? Sure? All right. Don’t go away, I’ll be right back!’

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John Allison


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