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Acing Small Talk with Americans – A How-To Guide

America is exalted as being the “Land of the Free” and the “Home of the Brave.” Being brave means to go where no one has gone before — avoid doing this when engaging in small talk.

What we mean is, when it comes to small talk, stick to the road most traveled.

Here are some tips to help:

1. Stick To Positive Comments.

Negative words are to be avoided at all costs. When you’ve just met a person, you do not know their preferences, opinions, or views on any subject. It is advisable to be discreet, and to stick to topics upon which no one can have a “wrong” opinion — like the weather.

You may be discussing politics while supporting the Republican Party, and your conversation partner may turn out to be a 7th-generation Democrat. This could make things tense and awkward.

To avoid this, stick to light topics such as what’s happening with the kids, how’s the car, the possibility of a Lakers win, etc.

Spreading a little positivity never hurt anybody, and it’s not going to start doing that now.

2. Remember The Three E’s: Enthusiasm, Earnestness, and Eagerness.

To make small talk successfully, you need to convince the opposite party that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say, and that you enjoy conversing with them.

The aim of small talk is to make both parties comfortable with each other, to facilitate better dialogue between them.

That objective will certainly not be met if the other party thinks you’re just putting on a show, so there’s no sense in doing things by half measures.

Direct your energies towards them, and they will most likely copy you and direct their energies towards you.

When you focus on your conversation partner, it gives the impression that you are willing to prioritize others above yourself, which is always a good sign.

3. You’re Not in Court.

Suppose you met someone a couple of weeks ago, and didn’t really like their vibe. A common friend reintroduces you by way of something like “Hey Dave! I believe you remember John, right?”

In this case, the best thing to do would be to overreact — just a little. Respond with “Yes, of course I do. I was wondering when we’d meet next, and here we are!”

It’s important to remember to not overdo it though — Americans catch on quick.

Translation: it’s perfectly okay to relax the facts a little bit. Recall the example of you being introduced to a not-so-nice person whom you’d met earlier.

Show enthusiasm, and don’t show any negative emotions. Phrases like “I’m delighted we met again so soon,” “what a pleasant surprise,” and “how lovely to see you again” are the standard operating format in these situations.

Try to keep your personal feelings and opinions separate from any small talk that you make — keep it generic.

Also, keep in mind that Americans seem to have an uncanny memory for things that are said during small talk.

You can take advantage of this by dropping relevant points about yourself or your objective during the conversation like, “Oh, it’s funny you should mention that — my daughter is applying to your school.”

On the flip side, never mention anything that you will not abide by later — you’ll be held to your word.

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4. Sports Is The Secret.

Most people in the U.S. follow at least one sport religiously.

Have an opinion on at least one, such as Major League Soccer, hockey, or baseball at the ready.

Few people on earth have been bitten by the sports bug as hard as the people of America.

Pick a sport and throw yourself into it. If you choose baseball, you might look into coaching little league, following the minor league on television, and attending your team’s home games.

This has the twofold benefit of giving you a lot to talk about, and helping you blend into your community in the States.

Being wholly accepted in any new country is hard, but you actually have to work hard in the U.S. by proving your dedication in all aspects of your life.

Ideally, you should be able to maintain a conversation on your chosen discipline for at least 10 minutes, because once Americans get started on a topic they’re interested in, there’s no stopping them.

Having extensive sports knowledge is the fastest way to earn a fellow fan’s respect in the U.S.

5. Get Personal. Really Personal.

If someone does or says something that reminds you of someone you know, bring it up immediately.

If your small talk partner looks like a classmate you had in college, let them know. If they remind you of your aunt, communicate this to them. If they talk like your brother, tell them.

This establishes a sort of personal rapport with other people that can come in handy later on.

Statistically speaking, small talk is usually made when two strangers meet. This could be for a business deal, at a bar, on a date, in the subway, etc.

Being good at small talk exponentially enhances your first impression with the other person, and you know what they say: first impressions are the last impressions.

For example, if you need directions, you sure aren’t getting them from the person you snubbed off at the bar 10 minutes ago.

This isn’t only true for small talk: being nice gets you places, in general.

6. Listen, Analyze, And Follow Through.

It’s never enough to simply ask the right questions — you must provethat you were paying attention.

One of the best ways to be remembered is to remember. If you asked someone a question about their children’s age, follow it up with a question about their school.

People are happy when someone else takes a semi-active interest in their life. The key here is not to pack all your follow-up questions too tightly together.

For instance, barraging the other person with questions about their only daughter will just make you out to be suspicious.

There isn’t any formula, but asking them throughout the conversation is a good idea. The only real “rule” about small talk is that the conversation must not be forced.

If your exchange is stilted or forced, trust us, it will be the only thing the other party will remember about you.

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7. Emphasis IS Important.

Don’t say “HOW’s it going, pal?” Instead say, “How’s it GOing, pal?” We’ve included a list of these for easy reference.

Consider the following sentence:

“She isn’t flying to Jakarta tomorrow.” Now, imagine this sentence is spoken while emphasizing the “she.” That would be: “SHE isn’t flying to Jakarta tomorrow.”

This implies that someoneis flying to Jakarta the next day, but not the person being talked about.

Now, consider the same sentence, this time, emphasizing “flying.” Translation: “She isn’t FLYING to Jakarta tomorrow.”

Now the meaning has totally changed. This particular version implies that the person being spoken about is indeed going to Jakarta, just not by flight.

See? Aside from these two combinations, the sentence has six other possible meanings hidden in it. Can you find them all?

The point being, changing emphasis on even a single word can impact the entire outcome of your conversation — so be careful.

Here is a list of common emphasizing mistakes people make when making regular small talk:

MISTAKEPROPER EMPHASIS
Hey! How are YOU?Hey! How ARE you?
How’s it going, man?How’s it GOing, man?
DID you hear about WHAT happened to [name]?Did you HEAR about what HAPPENED to [name]?
LONG time no see!Long time no SEE!
Lovely weather TODAY, don’t you think?LOVELY weather today, don’t you think?

This may seem a bit confusing to some, but the trick is to emphasize the second word from the one you would normally emphasize.

Using these tips, you’re ready to start making small talk with Americans. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come naturally at first. With a little practice, you can become an expert at light conversation with just about anyone.

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