Starting an English conversation is one of the things that current students of the language find quite scary. First of all, they are frightened by the idea of saying the wrong thing. Second, they are also afraid of the very thought of not knowing what to say once they get a response. This is why some students choose to just remain silent. After all, how can they make a mistake if they just keep their mouth shut, right? Wrong! While some students choose silence as a better option, it is actually a greater mistake than speaking up. It is also counterproductive to learning the language.
If you are one of those English-learners who fear to start conversations, you have come to the right place. Here are some tips you could use to start talking to strangers and starting an English conversation.
Formal English vs. Informal English in an English Conversation
Knowing how to start a conversation well is an essential skill. Firstly, it helps you make new friends. Secondly, it also helps you move forward in life. Great conversation skills also help give other people a good impression of you. But how do you know that the conversation you have initiated will turn out good, exactly? One thing you should always keep in mind once you decide to talk to someone is this: who are they? For example, talking to the CEO of your company will be, in a way, different from speaking with a co-worker. That is, when speaking to the CEO, you are highly encouraged to use formal language.
Formal language requires you to be eloquent, professional, and respectful. This is why it is mostly reserved for specific situations that require your best behavior. A company meeting, a dinner party with associates, or speaking to a superior all require the use of formal language. When speaking to someone with a higher position than yours e.g. your boss, always use salutations like “Ma’am” or “Sir.” Neglecting to use formal language during an English conversation in these situations may leave a bad impression.
Instead of: “How are you?”
Try saying: “Have you been well?” or “How have you been doing?”
Instead of: “Can you give me your number?”
Try saying: “May I have your contact details?”
Instead of: “What time is it?”
Try saying: “Excuse me, do you have the time?” or “Pardon me, do you know what time it is?”
Instead of: “I love your bag!”
Try saying: “That is a really nice bag.”
Instead of: “I gotta get outta here.”
Try saying: “Please excuse me ma’am/sir, but I need to leave now.”
Meanwhile, informal language a.k.a. casual language has no limits. That is, it allows you to speak freely and comfortable. This type of language is mostly used for conversations with people we already know. Or (if it is in a workplace setting) people we have a similar standing with such as co-workers. Additionally, the casual language may also be used in starting a conversation with a stranger.
Casual language helps people feel at ease and gives them room to breathe. It also shows your personality. However, using extremely casual language may also lead to disaster especially when talking to a stranger. This is because it is easy to go way overboard and become disrespectful—a common situation in the dating scene. So, when starting a casual conversation with a stranger, do not forget to be polite as well.
What Makes an English Conversation Great?
Now, what makes for a great conversation? Take note, an English conversation is no different from conversations in other languages. That is, no one would like it to end before it even begins. If you want to start a conversation that is sure to last and end well, you should consider the following:
Start with an interesting topic.
Although asking about the weather is a common conversation starter, it is hard to prolong a conversation with it. When you start a conversation, try something interesting. For example, if you are in a restaurant you can start with a fun trivia about wine or food. Or if you are in a sporting event, you can begin with some fact regarding the teams playing.
Pay attention by showing interest.
If the person you are trying to start a conversation with shows interest, pay attention. Body language such as nodding your head and keeping eye contact show interest. Constantly checking your watch, looking at other people, and avoiding eye contact show disinterest.
Once you get the ball rolling, try to keep the conversation light. Avoid going into topics that require deep thought or may start arguments like politics and religion. Throwing in a joke once in a while will help make the other person feel at ease. Also, it can give off a positive impression.
Give them a chance to speak about themselves.
Conversations give you a chance to sell yourself to other people. That is why a lot of people cannot help themselves from talking about every achievement they have. Incessantly talking about yourself can make you come across as overconfident and boastful. For a first-time conversation with a stranger, try to keep talking about how great you are to a minimum. In fact, for a greater chance at success, try to make the person talk about themselves more. This gives them the impression that you are genuinely interested in them.
A conversation is a two-way street. Remember, you are not just there to talk about how awesome you are. Listening is important. Do not just wait for your turn to speak. For example, if the person shares something personal, avoid answering with a similar experience. Instead, try asking about how that experience changed the person and what it means to him or her.
Here are some casual English conversation starters you can use in certain situations, including some responses you can give:
Asking for Directions
- Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to [destination]?
- How do you get to [point B] from [point A]?
- Hello, is this the correct way to [destination]?
- Am I on the right track to [destination]?
- Hi, how do I go to [destination] from here?
- I need to go to [destination]. Where should I head to from here?
At a Café
- Hi, I heard this place has got great coffee.
- Should I order a [drink A] or just stick with a [drink B] instead?
- How do you like your coffee?
- I’m new here, can you recommend a drink for me?
- Do you prefer hot or iced coffee?
- Would you recommend their house brew?
- I’ve heard that one of the most expensive coffee in the world comes from civet poop.
- Have you tried cold brew?
At a Sports Event
- Which team are you rooting for?
- Hello, I can never get how this game is played. Can you please explain it to me?
- Have you been following the games this season?
- I’ve followed [athlete’s name] since he started and I can definitely say he’s/she’s improved.
- So, who do you think is going to win?
Checking-in at a Hotel/ Choosing a Hotel
- I would like to check-in in a room for two, please.
- Hi, I have a reservation under the name [name].
- I’m [name], and I have a reservation.
- Would you recommend a stay at the [hotel]?
- What is the best hotel you’ve ever stayed?
- Have you ever tried eating anything out of the minibar?
Starting an English Conversation with a New Colleague
- Hi, so you’re new here? I’m [name].
- What department are you in?
- How’s the workplace so far?
- How long have you been working as a [job]?
- Encountered any problem yet?
Starting a Conversation at a Party
- Hello, I’m [name] – I don’t think we’ve met yet.
- Have you tried the cake? It’s delicious!
- Are you from here?
- How do you know [name of host]?
Starting an English Conversation with an Old Acquaintance
- Hi! How have you been!
- It’s been a while! How are you?
- What have you been up to lately?
- Are you still working for [company]?
Visiting a Museum or a Gallery
- The art here is beautiful! What’s your favorite piece?
- Have you visited the Louvre?
- Do you know who Banksy is?
Visiting a Restaurant
- Would you recommend their steak?
- I heard that their risotto is awesome!
- Are you here often?
- Are your meals vegan-friendly?
- How do you like your beef?
- Did you know that a chef’s tall hat is called a ‘toque’?
So, are you still afraid of having a conversation that would likely fail? Well, why don’t you stop thinking and just go for it? After all, an English conversation is just like Schrödinger’s cat. That is, you will never know how it turns out unless you jump in and see for yourself.