Small talk on the edge

Title
Small talk on the edge
Skills
Speaking and listening

Level
Intermediate to advanced
Steps

1. Ask the learners to work with a partner or in small groups and think back to times when they´ve wanted to start a conversation with someone about something and times when someone has been talking to them about something that they didn´t want to talk about. Now ask them to discuss what they did or said in those two situations and what you could do or say in those situations. The pairs or groups then feedback their ideas to the rest of the group for the teacher to write up on the board.
Here are some possible responses for starting a conversation:

a. Asking a question about the topic you want to talk about, e.g. Did you watch the game last night?

b. Asking a question or making a comment connected to the room that you´re in or the situation you´re in, e.g. Is this seat free?
What a wonderful buffet—the food´s great!

c. Paying someone a compliment, e.g. I really like that scarf you´re wearing, where did you get it?
d. Showing someone something or pointing something out, e.g. Look at those clouds, I think it´s going to rain again.

Here are some possible strategies you can use when someone is talking to you about something you don´t want to talk about:

Change the subject by saying:
– I know this is changing the subject but…
– Just to change the subject for a moment…
– It’s funny you should say that because…

Start talking about something else by saying:
– Before I forget…
– By the way…
– That reminds me

Leave the conversation by saying:
– Would you excuse me…
– I´m afraid I´m going to have to leave you guys to it…
– Excuse me, I just need to go and talk to someone over there before they  leave…
Now ask the learners to discuss what they do and say or would do and say in a situation where they´re making conversation with someone and the person asks them a question they don´t want to answer such as: Why aren´t you married? The pairs or small groups then feed these ideas back to the rest of the group for the teacher to write up on the board.

Here are some possible responses:
– I’m not sure if that’s really any of your business
– I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to answer that question
– Well, how much time have you got?
– I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were doing a survey
– That’s not something I get asked every day

Draw the learners´ attention to how we can use humour and softeners, such as “I´m not sure” or “I´m afraid” to deal with these kind of difficult questions.

Tell the learners that they are going to be moving around and making small talk with the rest of the group. You are going to give them a card which has the following on it:

1. something that they want to talk about

2. something that they don´t want to talk about

3. a difficult question.

Their objectives are:
1. Find someone who´s happy to talk to them about the thing they want to talk about.
2. Change the subject or politely leave the conversation if someone starts talking to them about the thing they don´t want to talk about.
3. Ask one other person their difficult question and respond to the difficult questions anybody else asks them.

See sample cards below. These sample cards have been designed for a group of eight students, but if you have more or less than eight students remember that the important thing is that there should be at least one person who doesn´t want to talk about something that another student wants to talk about.

The learners then have to talk to each other. They can start by sitting down and talking to the people near to them, but remind them that the person who´s happy to talk to them about the thing they want to talk about may be in another part of the room so they will have to get up and move around and talk to other people in group too. The teacher should do their best to distribute the cards so that learners have to move around.

Encourage the learners to keep talking and remind them that everyone needs to ask at least one other person their difficult question.

When everyone in the group has been able to have a conversation with someone who didn´t want to change the subject or leave the conversation and everyone has asked their difficult questions, you can ask the learners to go back to their original seats. Have them tell you who they found to talk to, what they talked about and if they learned anything new about their conversation partner. Then ask them how successfully they were able to change the subject or leave a conversation (How do they know that they were successful or unsuccessful?) and how they dealt with the difficult questions they were asked.

Then ask the learners to discuss which of the difficult questions they thought were the worst or the most taboo and which they thought that it would be acceptable to ask in a small talk situation. Encourage them to reflect on how the level of appropriateness would be also be dependent on the type of situation they´re in and their relationship with the person they´re talking to. Cultural issues is another area that could be explored here, i.e. looking at how people from different cultures would find some questions more or less appropriate.

Sample cards

– You want to talk about work / your studies

– You don´t want to talk about cars

– Ask someone who isn´t married why they´re not married.

1

 

– You want to talk about what you did last weekend

– You don´t want to talk about where you live

– Find out how much money someone else earns or how much money they have to live on.

2

 

– You want to talk about cars

– You don´t want to talk about work/ your studies

– Find out if someone else has a car. If they do, ask them what type of car it is. If they don´t ask them why they don´t have a car.

3

 

– You want to talk about cars

– You don´t to talk about football

– Ask someone who lives in a village why they don´t live in a bigger town or city.

4

 

– You want to talk about football and your favourite football team

– You don´t want to talk about work/ your studies

– Ask someone who doesn´t have children why they don´t.

5

 

– You want to talk about the new outfit you´re wearing

– You don´t want to talk about football, or any type of sport

– Ask someone where they bought something they´re wearing.

6

 

– You want to talk about your phone and show everyone all the things you can do with it

– You don´t want to talk about clothes

– Ask someone else what kind of phone they have and what they can do with it.

7

 

– You want to talk about your home town or village and tell everyone else how great it is

– You don´t want to talk about phones—you only have a very basic one

– Ask someone else in the group why they need to have a smartphone—wouldn´t they be able to do everything they need to do with a basic phone like yours?

8

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