Like it or not, small talk is an important part of business. Whether it’s in a lift, at a conference, in a meeting room or even over the phone, it might seem inconsequential, but it actually has several functions.

Small talk is there to break the ice. It helps us build valuable relationships and trust amongst colleagues. Not to mention, it’s a great way to find out more about who you’re working with.

But when you’re meeting international clients for the first time, you may have the added pressure of speaking English too.

That’s why we’re here! This guide will help you fill those awkward silences like a pro.


Safe small talk


When it comes to making small talk, choosing the topic is key. Keep things light-hearted and try to find common ground. The weather, sport and television are all safe topics, but it can be culture-dependent too.

Like in France, for example, it’s common to talk about politics. Whereas in other countries that might not be the case. In Spain and Italy sport is a go-to. Then, of course, in Britain, we love to chat about the weather! In Russia, on the other hand, such topics might be considered trivial, where a more in-depth topic is preferred.

Safe small talk | Small talk for Business English | Oxford House Barcelona

Some nationalities enjoy talking about themselves, or even about their family. However, in China you should be more cautious as it’s not customary to ask for personal information.

The best thing you can do is think about the person you’re talking to and what might be safe common ground. Asking about local foods, festivals and customs is a great way to play it safe.

Topics to include:

  • Your surroundings.
  • Your commute.
  • Weather.
  • Sport.
  • Food.
  • Local festivals.
  • Customs.

Questions to ask in English


Here are some questions and answers to get the conversation flowing. Why not practise reading them aloud in front of the mirror?

Your Surroundings

How’s your hotel?

The location is great, and the bed’s really comfortable so what more do you need really?

Is this your first visit to Barcelona?

No, I’ve been here a few times on business, it’s a beautiful city.

Will you have time to see the city?

I’m afraid not, I’ll have to run to the airport after the conference.

The Weather

What was the weather like in London when you left?

Terrible, I’m hoping to bring back some of this sunshine with me.

It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?

Glorious! Is it always this nice?

Is it true it always rains in the UK?

Well, it definitely rains a lot but we do have the odd nice day.


Did you watch the Champions League final?

Of course, it was a fantastic game – and that last goal was unbelievable!

Do you do much sport yourself?

I sometimes play paddle at the weekend. Have you heard of it?

Your country’s famous for football isn’t it?

Yes, but we’re also famous for basketball and hockey. Lots of people are really into cycling at the moment too.

Questions to ask in English |  Business English Small Talk | Oxford House Barcelona

How long to chit-chat


How much small talk to make before you get down to business is fundamental. Here culture is key. In fact, for some nations, making idle chit-chat is a no-no. In some parts of the world, it can last a few minutes. Whereas for others it can last the whole meeting!

In Germany, for example, it’s not customary to make a lot of small talk, and personal relationships take longer to develop. The same goes for Japan and Finland. Here short pleasantries are normally exchanged, and then it’s often back to business.

America, on the other hand, is famous for a lot of friendly talk. In Brazil they’ll happily engage for long periods of time too.

The key is to do a bit of research before visiting the country, and not to be offended if your colleagues aren’t up for a chat!


Topics to avoid


It’s best to keep away from some topics, as you might get into dangerous territory. No one wants to hear about your salary, or be asked about theirs. Well, unless you’re Bill Gates.

It’s also best not to get too personal. People don’t want to know that your pet hamster just died, or about that recurring medical problem.

Our tip? Watch out for body language. If your audience looks uncomfortable – they probably are. And it’s probably time to change the conversation.


Use B.A.G.S


We hope you’ve got plenty of information now for making the perfect small talk. But if in doubt, remember B.A.G.S. Using this acronym will help you keep a conversation going and make you feel more relaxed.

It stands for:

B – Be friendly. Show interest in the other person and ask lots of questions.

A – Agree. Find something you have in common and try not to disagree too early on as it might kill the conversation.

G – Give information. Don’t be afraid to share something about yourself and your country but remember to not get too personal.

S – Smile. Enjoy it, tell a joke, and don’t worry about making mistakes.

If you’d like to learn more business English, check out our blog: 8 resources to build your business vocabulary.

And if you’re looking for Business English classes, we have just the course for you!

Glossary for Language Learners


Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.

Break the ice (exp): to start a conversation and make people feel more comfortable.

Awkward (adj): a difficult or uncomfortable situation.

Light-hearted (adj): easy and not serious.

Common ground (n): shared interests or beliefs.

Flowing (exp) : moving easily.

Get down to business (exp): to focus on work.

Idle (adj): without purpose.

Pleasantries (n): polite introductory conversation.

Dangerous territory (n): a difficult situation.

Keep a conversation going (exp): to maintain a conversation.

Kill the conversation (exp): to abruptly end a conversation.


exp = expression

adj = adjective

n = noun

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