For many of us, lockdowns are easing, businesses are opening and we can finally get back to our work, studies and social life. Sounds great, right? But when you’ve been cooped up indoors with only a screen to talk to, suddenly returning to normal life and face-to-face conversation can feel a little nerve-wracking – especially if you’re doing it in another language.
But don’t panic, because our Brighter English Guide to avoiding awkward conversation is here, to help you break the ice - and the silence – at your next big English event. Whether you’re meeting up with friends for the first time, having lunch with a colleague or going on that all-important first date, keep reading to discover:
How to keep the conversation flowing
How to extend your answers
How to end a conversation politely
Why it Matters
In England, small talk is very popular and it happens almost everywhere you go. You can often hear strangers chatting about the weather, the latest news or sports, and what plans they have for the day. At bus stops, on trains, in bars and even when queueing at the supermarket, you’ll find English people having a polite and friendly conversation with the person next to them.
If you’re not a native speaker, small talk can feel scary and awkward at first. But, with a little practice and some useful tools up your sleeve, you can make your English conversation interesting and fun, and avoid those dreaded long pauses.
What Causes the Problem?
There are lots of reasons why you might struggle to have a breezy conversation with someone in English. It could be that you have a very different personality to the person you’re talking to. Or perhaps you come from countries and cultures that engage in small talk differently.
But what I’ve found, as a teacher, is that students are often so worried about ‘getting it wrong’ that they give the shortest possible answer – and this can make it difficult for your conversation partner to respond. It’s really important to give longer answers and ask follow-up questions. This not only helps you to find different topics to talk about, but it keeps the discussion flowing, too.
How to Solve it
It can be tricky to improve your conversation skills, if you’re not sure where you’re going wrong. Often, reading or listening to other people’s conversations can make it easier to spot problems and find helpful ways to overcome them.
Let’s look at these 2 examples of a conversation between friends – which conversation do you think is better and why?
Charlie: Did you have a good weekend?
Ava: Umm…Yes, it was good, thanks. And you?
Charlie: I went to the beach it was fun. Uhhhh…and you?
Ava: Well….I went to a restaurant with my friends.
Charlie: Did you have a good weekend?
Ava: Yes, It was great, thanks. I went to a lovely Italian restaurant with my friends from gym club on Saturday night, and on Sunday I chilled out at home and watched Stranger Things on Netflix.
Charlie: Sounds brilliant! I love Italian food. Which restaurant did you go to?
Ava: I went to Stella on Bridge Street. The food was really delicious, I’d really recommend it. What did you get up to at the weekend?
Charlie: I didn’t do much on Saturday – I just stayed at home and played Call of Duty online with some friends from work. But on Sunday, I had a picnic on the beach with my family. It was too cold to swim, but we played some beach volleyball, which was fun.
Ava: It’s a shame it was too cold! Which beach did you go to? Was it far?
Charlie: No, we went to Lyme Regis, so it was only a 45 minute drive. And, in a way, it was good that the weather was cold – it meant we had most of the beach to ourselves!
So, what do you think? Which conversation flowed best?
If you guessed Number 2, you’re absolutely right! So, let’s look at why:
Ava responded to Charlie’s question with a long answer, giving lots of details about her weekend. She not only told him where she went and who with, but gave some specific details to make her answer longer, e.g. ‘lovely Italian Restaurant’, ‘friends from gym club’, ‘watched Stranger Things on Netflix’. By extending her answer, she encouraged Charlie to do the same when she asked him about his weekend.
Rather than responding with ‘and you?’ they both kept the conversation going by asking Wh- follow up questions to find out some extra details about what they did. Using question words like which, what, where, when, who and why, avoids open questions that can be daunting to a non-native speaker, and helps to shape the conversation.
They both show that they are actively listening to each other by using some of their partner’s details in their responses. When Charlie says, ‘I love Italian food’ it shows he was paying attention to Ava when she told him about the Italian restaurant she went to. When Ava says, ‘It’s a shame it was too cold’ it shows she was listening to Charlie explain why he wasn’t able to swim.
There were no ummms, uhhhs or long pauses that made the conversation awkward. Because they could both think of lots of things to say, and asked great follow-up questions, they kept the conversation easy and natural.
So, to keep the conversation flowing:
Make your answers longer by including some extra details. If you get stuck, think what, where, when, who, why and how.
Use Wh- question words to begin your follow-up questions.
Show you’re actively listening by asking your partner about the details they gave you in their answer.
Avoid long pauses.
How to Make a Graceful Exit
Sometimes, a discussion just doesn’t work, despite your best efforts to keep it on track. It might just seem like really hard work or even dry up completely. When this happens, it can feel frustrating and embarrassing – but don’t worry! There is a way to end an awkward conversation smoothly, without offending the person you’re talking to.
The most importantly thing is not to do this too quickly or abruptly. If you say, ‘Ok I have to go now. Bye!’ without building up to it first, you could appear rude to a native English speaker. But the good news is that it’s actually really simple to wind down a discussion politely – just follow these 4 easy steps:
Smile – it’s important to appear friendly and look like you’ve enjoyed the conversation when you’re about to go.
Say something positive about the conversation – people love compliments and this leaves them with a great last impression.
Say where you have to go and why – if you’re ending a conversation unexpectedly, this helps the person you’re talking to understand your reasons for leaving.
Use a warm and friendly sign off phrase – this shows you care about the person and want to speak to them again in the future.
Look at the conversation endings below. Can you find examples of points 2-4 in each one?
Well, it’s been amazing talking to you, but I’ve got an optician’s appointment soon to fit my new glasses, so I’d better go. Take care and I’ll see you soon. Bye!
Ahhh, I’ve had such a lovely time catching up with you, but I’m actually on my way to visit my sister and her kids because I’m on babysitting duty, so I’d better get a move on! Have a great day. Speak soon!
Listen, it’s been brilliant to chat but I actually have a yoga class in 20 minutes, so I’d better dash. Enjoy the rest of your day and we’ll get a date in the diary to meet up soon. See you!
2. It’s been amazing talking to you
3. I’ve got an optician’s appointment to fit my new glasses
4. Take care and I’ll see you soon.
2. I’ve had such a lovely time catching up with you
3. I’m on my way to visit my sister and her kids because I’m on babysitting duty
4. Have a great day. Speak soon!
2. It’s been brilliant to chat
3. I have a yoga class in 20 minutes
4. Enjoy the rest of your day and we’ll get a date in the diary to meet up soon.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning how to have a fun, easy and interesting conversation in English. We’d love to know if you tried any of our tips, and if they helped you to avoid those long, awkward silences!
If you still feel like your English conversation skills could use a little work, why not get some practice before showing them off to the world? Book onto one of our fantastic Brighter English courses and improve your English from the comfort of your own home. All of our courses are 75% speaking and listening, which means you’ll get plenty of opportunities to express yourself, practise your pronunciation and enjoy conversations with students from all over the world.
Simply get in touch to find out more.