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How to Use Small Talk to Build a Bridge to the Heart of a Conversation

AA: I'm Avi Arditti and this week on WORDMASTER: small talk. It's a topic we've discussed before, and some of you would like us to continue the conversation -- like Said, an English teacher in Egypt, and Thynn, a computer programmer from Burma, now here in the United States.

So joining us from Los Angeles is our friend, English teacher Nina Weinstein.

NINA WEINSTEIN: "OK, well maybe we should define small talk first. It's the beginning of every conversation, even if you're talking with your good friends. In the American culture, people are very uncomfortable with silence.

"Small talk is supposed to be kind of superficial conversation, and the reason it's superficial is because you either don't know the person and you're using small talk to get to know them better, or you're strangers and this is your whole conversation. And so we don't want emotional topics. This isn't the time to say 'So, how is your divorce going?'"

AA: "Right. I imagine that this would be especially daunting for someone who is learning English. It's not their native language and they're in a situation where they need to engage in conversation or small talk and maybe they're a little uncomfortable."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Right. So maybe we should talk about some of the topics that they can use and some of the sentences that they can use ... "

AA: "Sure, sure, go ahead."

NINA WEINSTEIN: " ... for the small talk. So let's say that you're meeting at a building or you're meeting at a restaurant. You can say 'Was there a lot of traffic? Did you have any trouble finding the building?' You can say things like 'Beautiful day, isn't it?' Or 'I hope it doesn't rain again tomorrow.'

"And these aren't fascinating topics, but they begin to create a conversation for you. If it's almost the weekend, we can say 'Do you have any plans for the weekend?' Or if the weekend has already passed, you can say 'Did you have a nice weekend?' And based on their answer, you might find deeper topics or deeper conversation. So, again, this can be a kind of road or a bridge."

AA: "Now what about if you're on the other side -- let's say the prospective employer or someone interviewing you is the one who has opened with a line like that. What's a good response?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Well, if it's 'Beautiful day today, isn't it?' you can say 'Yes, it's gorgeous. I love hot, sunny days.' I tell my students this is like playing tennis. When someone says 'Beautiful day today, isn't it?' they've hit the ball to you. You don't want to just say 'Yes,' because then the ball goes down the court and it's on the ground."

AA: "It just dribbles away."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "It dribbles away. So what you want to do is you want to give them something that they can create easy conversation with."

AA: "So now let's say you're in a situation where you're having a conversation, and you suddenly sense that maybe you've said something that has hurt the other person's feelings or you touched on a topic that maybe wasn't a good topic to talk about. Do you draw attention to that? Do you stop and apologize? Or do you say 'Mmm ... let's move on to another topic.'"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "My sense is to stop and apologize. If you really sense that you hurt the person's feelings or overstepped, you could kind of question whether you have by saying something like 'I hope I didn't offend you with that comment' or 'I didn't mean to offend you with that comment, I hope you're not offended.' And then it gives the other person a chance to respond and it makes you feel more comfortable and they can feel more comfortable."

AA: "And I'm curious, with your own experience with small talk, conversations with people you meet, strangers, business acquaintances, have you learned anything new in recent years about the art of doing this?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Actually I have, and I've written a set of materials about this that are really easy and they're on business-size cards, and I have my students stick these in their pocket. But I think the most important thing that I've learned is to be truly interested in the other person.

"I think if you're truly interested in the other person, they sense it. And everybody loves to talk about him or herself -- that's kind of a fact of life. And so if you're having trouble talking, if you gear the conversation or point the conversation in the direction of the person you are talking to, they will think you are great at making conversation, even though they've spent most of the time talking about themselves."

AA: English teacher and author Nina Weinstein. Her set of cards called "Business Entertaining Made a Lot Easier" is available through And that's WORDMASTER for this week. You can learn more about small talk at And our e-mail address is I'm Avi Arditti.