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Ian Bowie

After twelve years, my experiences of teaching English around Finland have been many and varied. One thing has, however, remained constant, the desire of my students to learn the so-called ‘art ’ of small talk. No matter where in Finland I have been, or to whom I have been speaking, whether engineer or artist, foreman or manager, the one area of language students always ask to be included in their lessons is small talk. The phrase ‘I want to small talk’ is almost a cliché. The question I invariably ask in reply, ‘How small would you like your talk to be?’ falls on uncomprehending ears. To the student, the request is asked in all earnestness. After all, surely once one has mastered this most allusive of all language functions one has mastered the whole of the English language? Perhaps, perhaps not. So what exactly is ‘small talk?’ 

Small talk is the ability to hold a conversation with someone for an undefined length of time without actually talking about anything of any consequence. One of the most common subjects for small talk is of course the weather. Such a conversation might well start and progress like this: 
‘Fine day today.’
‘Mmm. I heard there might be some rain this afternoon.’
‘Typical, just when you think Spring might be around the corner.’
‘I know. Still, you never can trust those weather forecasters.’
‘Quite right. I remember just last week …….’ 

And so it goes on. A conversation about the weather can be as long or as short as the day itself. The topic never seems to lose its fascination for English people and is certainly a good stand by topic should all else fail. But there is surely more to small talk than a simple discussion about the weather? Of course there is, and then again there isn’t. Small talk is simply that, talk about small things of little or no consequence to the speakers. The subject could be one of a thousand or more. There are no real secrets to it, just the simple fact that it is a conversation between two or more people about nothing in particular. People all over the world engage in it from Hong Kong to Helsinki on a daily basis.  So what do I teach my students when they tell me they want to ‘small talk’? Many things, but most importantly of all, I begin to help them to just talk.

It would seem that for many, simply gaining the confidence to open their mouths is an insurmountable hurdle. After years of having the need for total grammatical accuracy drummed into them they are too afraid to say anything for fear of being incorrect. What absolute rubbish! I will be the first to admit that my Finnish leaves a lot to be desired, especially in terms of grammatical accuracy. And yet every day I manage in a wide variety of situations, from getting a haircut to having my car serviced. I have a very good hairdresser and an excellent mechanic. The one thing they have in common is an inability to speak English, yet I am happy with the way my hair looks and my car is in perfect mechanical condition. Why? Because I use my wide vocabulary and rudimentary knowledge of grammar to communicate, and, surprise surprise, it works! Thankfully the way in which languages are taught in schools has changed considerably compared to twenty years ago. Today young people in Finland do not have the same fear of making a mistake as those who have gone before them. Grammar is of course still important but it should not be allowed to get in the way of a person’s ability or willingness to try to communicate.

 Small talk is in reality a figment of our collective imagination. It does not exist as a language function as such but serves purely as a means of getting to know someone or of passing time until a more interesting topic for conversation presents itself. There is no secret to small talk except one; forget about accuracy, open your mouth and begin to speak. One thing is certain though; if you are afraid to do even that, then your talk will be very small indeed!

© Ian Bowie 2001
Ian Bowie

Ian earns his living from a combination of teaching English and writing. In addition to a bi-weekly newspaper column he writes content for company websites, customer newsletters and press releases. He has just finished his first book, a work of non-fiction called 'Done Deal '. It is primarily a guide to sales and business etiquette in the UK. Once illustrated I hope publish the book and also develop a couple of one and two day training seminars based on the content. I'm currently looking for a suitable illustrator I can afford

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