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Can Making Small Talk Help You Live Longer?

May 5, 2021

How many people do you talk to as you move throughout your day?

Making small talk is an important part of the culture here in Canada as well as in the United States and in many other countries around the world. We make small talk with friends, acquaintances, and even people we've never met before (and may never see again). 

Small talk is short, informal conversation. It may end after a few pleasant exchanges, or it may act as a bridge into a more serious discussion.

Making small talk is more difficult during a pandemic, but it is not impossible. You can make small talk in a virtual setting, on the phone, or even in person from a safe distance. 

“I never thought I’d say this, but I miss small talk. I miss those 15-second exchanges with strangers at the gym. I miss asking acquaintances about their significant others or dropping an ‘I like your shoes’ to a woman in the elevator before hopping off.”

—Hannah Seo

Small Talk Challenge

According to psychologist Susan Pinker, social interaction (including small talk) is the #1 secret to living a longer life. (Watch the video below.)

Try counting how many people you talk to on an average day. Then see if you can slowly increase the number of social interactions you have, even if it starts with one extra hello!

5 Types of People to Chat with

  • postal workers / delivery people
  • cashiers / customer service reps
  • neighbors / dog walkers
  • transit workers
  • coworkers / classmates

5 Places to Make Small Talk

  • at a bus stop
  • at a playground or park
  • before a live or virtual meeting or class
  • in a waiting room or lineup
  • in (or while waiting for) an elevator

5 Safe Subjects for Small Talk

  • the weather
  • sports and entertainment
  • scenery or surroundings
  • food and beverages
  • weekend or holiday plans

5 Small Talk Questions

  • How are you? / How are things? / How have you been?
  • Do you have any plans for the weekend?
  • Have you been waiting long? 
  • Have you seen any good movies lately? / Did you catch the game last night?
  • Nice day, huh? / Is this winter ever going to end?

5 Reasons to Make Small Talk

  • to be polite
  • to practice your English
  • to fill an uncomfortable silence
  • to help people feel comfortable around you
  • to live longer (watch the video clip from 7:12–9:27)

Leave a Comment

Will this "secret" to a longer life convince you to take this challenge and step out of your comfort zone? Will you turn your microphone on in your online class and ask your teacher about her weekend? Will you strike up a conversation with your neighbor as he's walking the dog? How about talking about the weather with your friendly postal worker? 

Vocabulary

  • acquaintance: a person you've met but don't know well
  • pleasant: light and happy 
  • exchange: a short conversation (often between two people)
  • significant other: a romantic partner (e.g., wife or boyfriend)
  • drop: to quickly say something
  • hop off: to exit quickly
  • catch the game: watch a sporting event
  • step out of one's comfort zone: to take a risk or do something that makes you feel uncomfortable
  • strike up: to start
Related Lesson

In this Functional English lesson, students listen to a number of short dialogues and practice making small talk. The digital version of this lesson includes a speaking assessment task (video coming soon).
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Comments (16)

Saidali Ali(Guest)

I do small talk in the Tim Hortons for quick exchange words with strangers. how is your day before he left"

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Tara Benwell(Author)

Tim Hortons is the ideal place for small talk! When the pandemic is over, people will probably feel more comfortable chatting in the long line-ups again (instead of just using the drive-thru). Keep it up!

Ruth Luke(Guest)

Great read! I like to create small talk with random strangers because I feel like it helps make their day a little better. And mine as well! I was just reading that optimism helps people live longer, https://www.ez.insure/landing/2020/01/living-longer-optimism/ . What are your thoughts?

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    Tara Benwell(Author)

    I do think that makes sense, Ruth. Optimistic people are a pleasure to be around. That article is written in plain English that many learners might enjoy too!

    Maryna T.(Teacher)

    Before the pandemic, I loved making small talk with my colleagues during coffee breaks every Friday. Miss it a lot now!

    Reply to Comment

    Tara Benwell(Author)

    Hi, Maryna. Teachers really need each other for this daily dose of social-emotional health! We loved having a few opportunities for a coffee talk at the conference we just hosted over the weekend. I miss talking to teachers at conferences!

    Eli Silva(Guest)

    I think relationships are true life, without talking to others, life has no meaning.

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    Irina N.(Teacher)

    I teach my students to make small talks and it is such a shame that many of them are just shy to do it thinking that they will look silly!

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    Tara Benwell(Author)

    I'm glad you are working on this important skill with your students! It's true that many students struggle with this (even in their own language). And in the pandemic it is even more difficult. I hope this video helps a bit!

    Raisa G.(Student)

    I get positive emotions from communicating with dog's owners a daily.We are watching how funny our pets play each other.If you want to get a good mood for a day and for a long time, buy a dog.It's verified tool from depression.

    Reply to Comment

    Lei Kayanuma(Author)

    Thanks for sharing, Raisa! Dogs can be a great topic for small talk :)

    Siyavush G.(Student)

    I recently visited some countries. I had to conduct a conversation with airports employees, with a neighbor and flight attendants on the plane during the flight, as customs control and taxi drivers.
    At first, I was shy, but then I got used to it. I think this is good practice for my English.

    Reply to Comment

    Lei Kayanuma(Author)

    Thanks for sharing, Siyavush!

    Lidiia Chipurina(Guest)

    I agree with the words of psychologist Susan Pinker that social interaction (including small talk) is the # 1 secret to a long life.
    I can ask a teacher in an online class about her weekend.
    Every day I greet my neighbors. We usually discuss the weather. We often share tips on how to grow and water flowers. In winter, we clean drives together from snow. Sometimes the driveway is cleared of snow by the one who woke up earlier. Then we thank each other.
    In the playground, it is common for grandparents to talk to each other while their children play. We are talking about the weather, about school, about sports. Women share recipes for cooking delicious food. Men talk about cars. We meet often at the playground and many people have become friends. We are not bored together!

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    Igor B.(Student)

    My job is related with traveling abroad and I have a small conversations with customs workers every week. This helps to make the whole procedure more comfortable and easy and also build more trustful relationship.

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    Raisa H.(Student)

    In my opinion, socializing with people is a very important part of our life. That is exactly what I miss the most in Canada because of not knowing English well. But I try as much as possible to chat with neighbours, people in the park, talk about the weather, sometimes about plans for upcoming times. My neighbour is an Italian lady whose English is also limited, but we often talk to each other about what we made for dinner, what plans we have for holidays, how to grow tomatoes, etc. Sometimes we have coffee together.

    Since I don’t drive, I often take the bus and I ask the driver about the route and directions. In a lineup at the store sometimes I have an opportunity to exchange a few words with other people, as well as to have small talk with the cashier.

    As my English improves over time, making conversation becomes easier.

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