business English small talk

Walking the talk – part two

Teacher, teacher trainer and author John Allison returns to the topic of small talk & the Business English language learner, listing the most challenging aspects of maintaining or in fact leaving a social conversation.


For the non-native speaker, the most obvious obstacle to socializing is lack of vocabulary. Business meetings, conference calls, interviews and site inspections all have agendas; written or unwritten, they define the lexical fields likely to be travelled, giving learners at least a sporting chance of preparing the vocabulary they’ll need. Social conversation, on the other hand, is almost totally unpredictable. Having exhausted the possibilities of the weather, literally any subject in the Macmillan English Dictionary can come up, from A for aardvark to Z for zucchini.

A further complication is the learner’s bête noire, the idiom. Successful socializing relies heavily on getting on the same wavelength, fostering those ‘know what I mean’ moments. Functioning as cultural shortcuts, idioms are an ideally economical way of sharing perceptions – except that for the foreigner, there’s very little chance of guessing that ‘getting on like a house on fire‘ does not signal that the discussion has moved on to inflammability or alarm systems.

The second, and perhaps even more daunting task for the learner is coping with the grammar of socializing. Surprisingly for something so apparently simple (‘we were just chatting’), it requires mastery of some of the most difficult structures in English grammar. First and foremost comes question-asking, without which any conversation is one-sided and doomed to failure – unless perhaps one’s new acquaintance is truly stunning. Many languages signal a question with a simple change in intonation, or maybe go so far as to invert subject and verb. English of course has chosen a fiendishly complex system of auxiliary verbs – presumably to protect itself from the enquiries of foreign spies, salesmen and politicians. Despite regular practice of patterns such as ‘Who do you work for?’ many foreigners still fail to get their ducks in a row once they leave the classroom.

The mere mention of modal verbs or conditionals is enough to turn most non-natives pale. Sadly, it is very difficult to make polite conversation without a liberal sprinkling of polite hypotheticals such as ‘would you mind if,’ ‘do you think you might be able to,’ and ‘if you’re sure you don’t mind’. Follow that with a short sharp dose of question tags – ‘Wonderful food, isn’t it? You couldn’t get me another glass of Chardonnay, could you? I shouldn’t really, but you’re only young once, aren’t you?’ – and the average foreign visitor is quickly reduced to monosyllables – ‘Yes, um, no, I mean yes, um …’

Should our gallant friends from overseas manage to battle their way through the trenches of English grammar, yet more exotic language and cultural tests await them. They will need to be familiar with several dozen regional accents, each with its own idiosyncratic elisions and contractions; the visitor’s own, foreign brogue will be intriguing and sometimes seductive, but only understood if the right syllables are stressed, a task an order of difficulty greater than guessing the correct gender of common nouns in other languages. Moreover, foreigners are expected to relate to the peculiarly English affection for irony, understatement and self-deprecation: to survive contact with strangers, they will be required to hedge, flatter, emphasize, tone down and, on occasion, lie through their teeth.

Last but by no means least is that most valuable and supremely difficult social skill; the art of working the room. Taking leave without giving offense is a challenge for most of us in our own language; I leave you to imagine how well you yourself might cope in French, Spanish or German when cornered by the local bore!

‘By the way, have you met our ‘Green English’ blog? Well, I’ll let you introduce each other. I must just pop over and say hello to the BuzzWords, if you’ll excuse me. Nice meeting you!’

The first part of John’s post can be read here.

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John Allison

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