I am delighted to introduce you to yet another guest writer. I had the pleasure of meeting fellow English Language teacher, Leandra King when I was on holiday in Barbados in June. Not only do I love her place of work (who wouldn’t?!), I love how she has decided to specialise (niche down) in the important area of small talk. Her mission is to help non-native speakers feel comfortable engaging in small talk both in their professional and private lives. As this topic perfectly ties in with my recent e-book, I simply had to have Leandra share with you her tips on how to sound more natural when engaging in small talk.
Over to you, Leandra.
In this article, I’d like to take you into the office of an international company based in London. Here, I’d like you to meet two employees: Samantha and Arielle. Samantha is a native English speaker whereas Arielle is a non-native English speaker, originally from Germany.(Even though Arielle in this scenario is German, I would like to point out that the following principles apply regardless of one’s native language.)
The two ladies are roughly the same age and get along well most of the time. However, at times Arielle says or does things that Samantha might find a bit strange. Sometimes, Samantha lets certain things slide* but at other times she might get offended or even irritated with Arielle. What are some of the things that Arielle might be doing that her English-speaking colleague Samantha finds strange?
(*to let (something) slide – to do nothing about (something, such as another person’s mistake or bad behaviour) – Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary)
Reason 1: She’s not polite
Native English speakers tend to be very diplomatic in the way they speak, especially in delicate or sensitive situations. At work, this may present itself in various forms. In this section, we’ll look at three specific ways you can be polite.
- When making a suggestion
When making a suggestion, you want to avoid giving a command by telling the other person what to do.
What NOT to say: You should start practising your presentations before the meeting.
What you could say: –Have you ever thought about….
Perhaps you could…
Why the second example was better
A command was not given. In the first instance, you’re letting the person think for himself/herself. In the second instance, using “perhaps” and “could” shows a level of respect.
- When giving a differing opinion
Let’s face it: humans are diverse creatures. Everyone will not always agree with you. How could you give a differing opinion while still being respectful of the other person’s opinion?
What NOT to say: I don’t agree with that. I believe it’s wrong.
What you could say: I see the point you’re trying to make or I see where you’re coming from but I think (State opinion)
Why the second example was better
Before giving your personal opinion, you showed the other person that you acknowledge his/her opinion and respect it, even though you do not necessarily agree with it.
If it’s clear that you both feel very strongly about your opinions after some discussion, you could use the following expression to avoid any further argument and to settle the matter amicably.
“Maybe we could agree to disagree?”
- When giving negative feedback
This often may pose problems since some non-native speakers tend to come across as blunt and straight to the point. On the other hand, native English speakers tend to sugar-coat things.
What NOT to say: I really didn’t like your presentation. I thought it was way too long!
What you could say: I really like the examples you gave but I couldn’t help but notice the presentation was a bit long. Perhaps you could make it a bit shorter next time.
Why the second example was better
First of all, commendation was given. Then the use of phrases like “a bit”, “I couldn’t help but notice”, “perhaps” and “could” softens the negative feedback and shows politeness and consideration of the person’s feelings.
Reason 2: She doesn’t make small talk
In English culture, there is a tendency to make small talk before meetings, during coffee breaks and at office parties whereas in other cultures, it might be straight to business. Do you find it difficult to make small talk by starting conversations? This might not necessarily be because you have a different native language and culture. Actually, personality plays a big role in this as well. If you are reserved and introverted like I am, you might find it challenging to start conversations especially with people you don’t know well.
If you’re introverted or are worried about a lack of vocabulary, making small talk around a topic that interests you or that you know a lot about may help you. For example, you could use current events as a way of starting conversations. Ask yourself “What has been in the news lately?” Talking about both local and international news is an easy way for introverts to start conversations and make small talk.
For more tips on mastering small talk, I encourage you to read this great post written by Shanthi earlier this year. For help with casual, everyday conversation in English, I encourage you to sign up for the free e-guide at the end of the post.
Reason 3: She doesn’t keep the conversation going
In order to fit in with your colleagues, you’re expected to participate in the conversation. Monosyllabic answers like “yes” and “no” will quickly kill the conversation. In order to keep the conversation going, you need to expand on your answers or comments. Let’s look at some ways that you can participate more fully in a conversation.
- Responding to what the other person has said
Even though the person may have made a statement, that does not mean that the conversation has to end there. You can keep the conversation alive with your response.
Arielle: Sam, do you have any vacation plans this year?
Samantha- Yup! My hubby and I are heading off to Jamaica. I’m really looking forward to it!
Arielle: Oh. That’s great!
Here is where the conversation might go dead with non-native speakers.
How can Arielle keep the conversation going? Let’s look at the continuation of this dialogue below:
Arielle: Oh nice! Jamaica! I’ve always wanted to visit the country.(Repeating the answer is one way of showing interest.)
Now, let’s look at how this conversation can continue. We’ll now consider another way to participate in the conversation.
- Showing interest by asking follow-up questions
Asking follow-up questions is a way of continuing the conversation and showing interest in what the other person has said.
Here’s an example of a follow-up question
Arielle: Will it be your first trip to Jamaica?
Depending on Samantha’s response, Arielle would change the conversation to suit. Let’s look at possible follow up questions depending on Samantha’s response.
Samantha: No. Actually, I’ve been there twice before.
Arielle: Oh really? How did you find it?
This could lead to Samantha talking about what she likes or dislikes about the country and perhaps some funny memories and the conversation can evolve from there.
Samantha: Yup! I’m so excited.
Arielle: Oh nice! So do you have any plans for when you get there? Any activities in mind?
I hope you enjoyed meeting Sam and Arielle and learning from their situation. There are three points I’d like you to take away from this article today and use when socialising with your English speaking colleagues.
- Remember to be polite and show respect when giving a suggestion, giving a differing opinion and when giving negative feedback.
- Make small talk by starting conversations using current events. (Introverts can use topics they know a lot about to start conversations.)
- Participate in the conversation by making interesting remarks and by asking follow-up questions.
Leandra King is a native English speaker and online teacher from Barbados. She is the founder of English with Leandra where she teaches non-native English speakers everyday, casual conversational English, specifically how to socialise and fit in with native English speakers. For help with casual conversations, click here to get her free e-guide Socialise: A mini-guide to casual, everyday English conversations.
Thanks very much for this helpful post, Leandra. If you think your colleagues would benefit from this post, please share it with them. And be sure to download Leandra’s free e-guide.
Don’t forget…sharing is caring
Ciao for now.