How to start a conversation in English - a guide to small talk

Want to boost your conversational English vocabulary? This guide will help you improve your small talk so you can start conversations in English more easily.

Small talk is the polite kind of chat that strangers, colleagues and friends use in native English conversations to greet each other, get conversations started, and to get to know more about each other.

I wake up at 6 o’clock. I get up at 6.50. I make a cup of tea and iron my clothes. I have a shower and get dressed. I usually wear jeans, a blouse, a jumper or cardigan and boots in the winter, or a skirt and blouse in the summer. I brush my hair, put on my make-up. I pack my bag with all my teaching materials. I then put on my coat and leave the house. I walk to the bus stop. I catch the bus at 8.15, and then I pay my fare and sit down. It takes about 45 minutes to get to my destination three miles away. I get off the bus and walk to the school where I teach English. I have to sign in and get the key. Class starts at 9.25 and ends at 11.25.

I have lunch at 12. I eat a baguette or sandwich at the local café. I sometimes do some shopping before I walk back to school. I do some photocopying and go back to my classroom. I teach in the afternoon from 1 to 3pm. I then catch the bus back home and spend a couple of hours relaxing before I cook dinner.

My son goes to work shortly after I come home. Sometimes he cooks dinner before I get home, and sometimes I cook. I like to eat rice or pasta with a sauce. I chop the onions, fry them and then mix them with garlic, tomatoes, carrots, spinach and chilies. I boil the rice and then add the sauce. After dinner I wash up, sweep the floor, and tidy up a bit.

Then I make phone calls, mark my students’ work, do the laundry. Then I go on Facebook, or watch TV until about 10.30 when my son comes home. We catch up on our day, and at about 11 o’clock I go to bed.


Most conversations in English, and in many languages around the world, begin with a greeting. In English you’ll find formal and informal greetings that can be used in various situations.

Formal ways to greet someone include:

  • Hello

  • It’s a pleasure to meet you

  • Good morning/afternoon/evening

Some informal greetings:

  • Hi

  • Hello

  • Hey

  • Yo!

  • What’s up? – this is an informal way to say: how are you?

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Questions are an important part of conversational English. It’s polite to ask about another person, to find out more about them, and to get to know them.

Generally when people start a conversation in English with someone they know it’s polite to enquire about how the other person is.

  • How’s it going?

  • Hi, how are you?

  • How’s your day going?

  • Having a busy day?

  • How’s life?

  • How’s everything?

And there are some basic questions that you can ask anyone, anywhere.

  • What’s your name?

  • Where do you live?

  • Where are you from?

  • What do you do?

The type of questions you ask someone in a conversation depend on various factors.

How well you know the person

You would speak more formally to someone you’ve never met, to a work colleague, or to someone older than you. You would speak more casually to a good friend, and to people in your own age group.

It’s a good idea to wait until someone speaks casually with you before you speak casually with them. You may find that people will begin to use casual greetings with you over time, as you get to know each other better.

Someone you’ve just been introduced to:

  • Nice to meet you!

  • Pleased to meet you!

  • How do you two know each other?

  • So, what do you do for a living? – this means what do you do for a job?

  • How long have you been doing that?

Someone you haven’t seen for a while:

  • How are you keeping?

  • What have you been doing lately?

  • How’s your family?

  • Long time no see!

Where you are

If you meet in the workplace, you may want to talk more formally. If you meet in a more casual environment, like at a party, in a bar, at a concert, or at the theatre you can talk more casually too.

Wherever you meet, you can talk about something you have in common. For example, if you’ve met at a party you could ask:

  • How do you know (the host of the party/the person who has introduced you to each other)?

  • Would you like a drink?

  • I love this song – do you like this kind of music?

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It’s polite to ask a person questions about themselves when you meet them, but it’s also important to respond to questions they’ve asked you. This helps to keep the conversation flowing.

You can combine your answers with follow-up questions based on information the other person is giving you. For example, if someone mentions they used to live in New York you could say:

  • Oh, you lived in New York? How long did you live there?

  • I’ve never been to New York; did you enjoy living there?

  • I loved visiting New York. Are there things you miss about living there?

Mirroring, or repeating some of the things the other person has said to you or asked you is a polite and easy way to respond too. For example:

  • Hi, I’m Anna. It’s nice to meet you
    Hi, I’m John. It’s nice to meet you too

  • Hi, I’m Anna. Are you enjoying the party?
    Hi, I’m John. Yeah, it’s been great! Are you enjoying it too?

Listening tips

Having a conversation outside of the classroom can be more challenging – but don’t give up! The more practice you have in the real world the better, and English speakers will be happy to help you.

When you’re listening to someone during a conversation focus on the words you recognise and understand more than the words you don’t.

You can practise by listening to conversations native English speakers have with each other on the radio, in interviews online, in movies, TV shows and more. Listen out for useful questions and expressions you can use in your own conversations in the future.

Still have any doubt? Download our free English Vocabulary Ebook for more tips and broaden your horizons with EF English Live.