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April 30, 2004

What's Small about Small Talk?

Stewart Jones
Ritsumeikan University

Current EFL textbooks include a variety of interactive speaking activities including problem solving tasks, discussions on different topics, surveys, debates and so on. Different as these activities may be, they have something fundamental in common: their main function is almost invariably 'transactional' (i.e. concerned with the exchange of information). Typically, learners are provided with a 'communicative purpose', which requires them to focus on the message of the interaction in order to extract certain details.

“Japanese learners often find situations where they can talk about almost anything, perhaps for no other purpose than getting to know someone, quite daunting.”

There is more to conversation than exchanging information, though. In fact, it is estimated that 80% of all conversation is 'interactional' talk, or small talk, the primary function of which is to establish and maintain social relationships. This is quite a different type of talk. Rather than being message oriented, it is listener oriented, which is to say that what the speaker says is motivated by empathy with the listener rather a need to convey information. It is typically dynamic, more spontaneous and unpredictable (often including frequent topic shifts), and, on the surface at least, less orderly than other types of talk, and therefore calls for quite different skills to those learners are accustomed to employing in their speaking tasks.

As important and prevalent as it is, why is it that textbooks fail to provide speaking activities that would help learners develop the skills necessary to engage in small talk? It seems to me that our failure to teach these skills is likely to compromise the development of learners' overall conversational competence. Certainly Japanese learners, who are used to having tangible goals and clear agendas for their speaking tasks, often find situations where they can talk about almost anything, perhaps for no other purpose than getting to know someone, quite daunting.

To be fair, textbooks do frequently encourage casual conversation between learners in discussion activities. But I think the answer to the question lies in a preoccupation with providing learners with stimulating subject matter for these activities, and the tendency to supply them with a communicative purpose that invariably involves them in extracting information from their conversations. As soon as the focus is placed on the message in this way, the main function of the exchanges become transactional. Learners, quite naturally, become more concerned with exchanging information than with interacting with each other socially, and so their conversations (however productive in terms of sharing opinions, experiences etc.) need not, and so do not, develop in a 'listener oriented' fashion, with the trademark characteristics of small talk.

Of course, we focus learners on the content of their interactions in an attempt to arouse their interest and motivate them to speak. But we need to realize that in doing so, we may also be robbing them of the opportunity to engage in conversation as a 'social event' and the chance to acquire conversational skills that are likely to be necessary for their future success in English speaking environments.

We also need to bear in mind that it is social obligation or a natural desire to socialize that most often motivate us to engage in conversation, not the desire to acquire new information. If we can somehow create these conditions in the classroom, then we can perhaps leave conversations to develop freely, purely as a function of social interaction.

Unable to rely on textbooks, teachers are left to their own devises to create ways of their own to allow learners some regular practice with small talk – ways that do not focus on the exchange of information. Below is one procedure that can be used to give students a feel for small talk. It is based on a simple feature (or rule) of small talk that requires the recipient of a question to answer the question, add some information and ask a question back. Applying the rule helps learners keep a conversation going almost indefinitely without them requiring a topic to discuss or any obvious purpose to their interaction.

(There are a few versions of this conversational rule, but I use this particular model, borrowed from Tomalin & Stempleski (1993), because the three A's are easy for students to recall as they get used to applying the rule).

The AAA model of small talk
(one person asks a) Question – (the other person) Answers, Adds and Asks

Situation: Two strangers left to talk to one another in a café after a mutual friend of theirs had to leave.

A: Do you live near here? (Question)
B: Yes, I do (Answer) ... in an apartment on 11th street (Add). Do you live nearby too (Ask)? A: No (Answer) ... I'm just visiting the city (Add). Uh... have you lived here long? (Ask) B: Not so long (Answer). I moved here from Chicago three years ago (Add). What's the purpose of your visit? (Ask) A: Oh, I ...

(Once a conversation is in full flow, the AAA rule may impose unnatural restrictions on speakers, so rather than introduce the rule as a prescriptive one, I explain it as one that conversationalists generally orientate to, to keep a conversation going).

The conversation continues with the participants always feeling an obligation to reciprocate in this manner. They may struggle at first to find something appropriate to say as they add information and return questions, but they soon begin to realize that what they actually say is often far less important than saying something to maintain the 'AAA' rule and avoid the conversation breaking down. As a consequence, their contributions become more spontaneous and contain frequent topic shifts, which reflects the unpredictability so characteristic of small talk.

The model enables learners to develop lengthy, natural sounding, social exchanges. These then provide the perfect platform on which they can further acquaint themselves with the rules of conversational etiquette they will need to maintain social exchanges. They need to become familiar with, for example, appropriate ways to open and close a conversation, to signal they have finished their turn, to interrupt a speaker, to change the topic, to return to a topic, to encourage a speaker or signal they would like to speak. These skills are essential for learners, if they are to develop full conversational competence.

The model enables learners to develop lengthy, natural sounding, social exchanges. These then provide the perfect platform on which they can further acquaint themselves with the rules of conversational etiquette they will need to maintain social exchanges. They need to become familiar with, for example, appropriate ways to open and close a conversation, to signal they have finished their turn, to interrupt a speaker, to change the topic, to return to a topic, to encourage a speaker or signal they would like to speak. These skills are essential for learners, if they are to develop full conversational competence.

Again, textbooks, on the whole, do not address this need. Many do include strategies and various conversational routines in activities, but these tend to be introduced in the contexts of transactional interactions where they are largely inconsequential to the speaker purpose. The advantage of introducing the various conversational micro-skills in the context of social talk is that they are perfectly in line with the speaker purpose of maintaining cordial relations with whomever they are speaking to.

A text I have found a very useful resource in this regard is Conversations and Dialogues in Action by Dornnyei and Thurrell (1992) which provides a range of activities on 'conversational rules and structures' and 'conversational strategies', amongst others. They also provide a large selection of phrases commonly used to perform the functions listed above, and many others too.

Applying the model
The 'AAA' model provides large classes of students (particularly if they don't know each other that well) an opportunity to practice authentic small talk with their peers. I generally set everyone the task of speaking to everyone in the class by the end of the semester, and then set aside a little time each lesson for students to mingle. In the first lesson, after introducing the 'AAA' model, I generally provide students with ways to initiate small talk and tactfully close conversations. From then on, I gradually introduce various other micro-skills through the course of the semester.

“For small classes, or classes where the students know each other well, students sometimes become stuck for things to talk about.”

These mingling sessions are an excellent way for students to relax and get to know one another, and help to create a supportive atmosphere in the classroom. Students also tend to be quite highly motivated in this activity – for a combination of reasons, I believe. Firstly, they recognize the conversations as authentic social interactions where they feel very real social pressure to contribute. In addition, they genuinely enjoy getting to know others through their interactions.

For small classes, or classes where the students know each other well, students sometimes become stuck for things to talk about. Whenever this happens, I provide them with an 'identity role card' to fill in, such as the one below:

Name _______________ . Age _____. Sex _____. Family _______________ . Home _______________ . Profession _______________ . Pastimes _______________ . Achievements _______________ . Goals _______________ .

Students then engage in small talk with their new identities. Their essential details on the role cards will only provide the basics of their identities – they will need to fill in the gaps as they speak. In lengthy conversations, inconsistencies in the facts they present about themselves may arise in which case they will need to use their ingenuity to iron these out. This can be an added source of entertainment, but is also a valid conversational skill to practice.

Setting the scene for role-plays is obviously important. Students need to be clear on their relationship to one another and the exact situation they find themselves in. I try to provide them with situations that are realistic – situations that we might well find ourselves required to make small talk in. With a little thought, it is not difficult to come up with a long list of such situations.

As a way of practicing specific conversational skills, I sometimes give students secret agenda, such as: 'avoid talking about work'; 'do not speak to anyone for longer than three minutes'; 'you only want to talk to people who work in the computer industry'. These would probably require students to change the topic of discussion, interrupt the speaker, exit a conversation etc., all of which, in the context of small talk, would need to be done politely and inconspicuously.

The above represent methods I have employed to help students acquire skills I believe vital if they are going to be able to integrate successfully into English speaking environments. On the whole, I have found the methods very successful in terms of student participation and enjoyment. Students seem to gain considerable satisfaction from being able to manage and shape conversations (as they gain more leverage over the various conversational skills), but also from being much more able to reveal more of who they are as individuals in the way they communicate with others – in what they choose to talk about, how they listen, acknowledge and respond to others, and generally choose to interact.

References and Further Reading:


Stewart Jones has been teaching English in Japan for 7 years, and is currently working as an EFL teacher at Ritsumeikan University. When he is not working, he is usually struggling to learn Japanese from his two children or cycling off the extra pounds. He has a passion for Japanese food.



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