They say “small talk is for small minds”.
And as travellers, we jump at the chance to announce that small talk is not our bag. That it is pointless, spiritually unfulfilling, a grave injustice to the magnificently interesting people we are.
Here’s another expression, though: “you’ve gotta walk before you can run”. And I’m going to explain why really nailing down small talk should actually be your top priority as a new Spanish learner.
Your first wins are the sweetest
If you’re reading this site, you’re probably learning Spanish for the pure satisfaction that goes with mastering a language. The beauty of connecting with somebody you wouldn’t have been able to communicate with a year ago.
But the journey to fluency is a long and winding one, and along the way you need minor wins to keep your eye on the prize and remind yourself of why you’re doing it. In a rough order of progression, the trophies you collect as a Spanish learner might look something like this:
- You manage to order a coffee or ask someone for directions
- You’re able to rent a car or give requirements for a haircut
- You successfully make small-talk with a stranger
- You have a discussion with someone about a shared passion
- You have a lengthy discussion or debate about a less familiar subject
- You watch a TV panel show and can follow the debate
- You host someone for dinner and speak together fluidly for several hours
- You develop an emotional bond with a new friend using empathy and/or humour
- You conduct a professional meeting or deliver a presentation
- You sit down to a Spanish movie and enjoy it like an English one
- You philosophize over the meaning of life with a group of native speakers under a starlit night sky
Even once you’ve reached a milestone, the previous two or three will still feel good every time you achieve them. And these mini euphorias will drive you towards that next deeply coveted checkpoint.
Opportunities to make small talk in Spanish will come at a crucial time in your journey. You’re covering predictable and rehearsable topics, but unlike what you’ve achieved before you are now building a relationship. This feels like a marked graduation from simply speaking in order to achieve a practical outcome (like making sure they add hazelnut to your coffee). Even if you don’t cover much ground in your conversation, you’ll know deep down that you nailed it. And you’ll just want to speak to more people.
While your goal in Spanish may be to make deep connections, do not underestimate the value of these smaller wins. Doing small talk well boosts your confidence. It helps to reduce your fear, thus propelling you into more social situations and putting you on an almost exponential trajectory.
You know where you are
Small talk also helps you to gauge your level and know what you’re capable of as a Spanish speaker.
If you’re still finding yourself freezing under pressure when a stranger starts chatting with you about the weather, then you need more practice. On the other hand, if you’re starting to lead the conversation and drop in a few jokes then you might think it’s time to join a cycling club or take someone out on a date.
Small talk in Spanish eases you into the world of conversation. It can be a brief exchange after which you go your separate ways, or the precursor to swapping numbers with someone. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the outcome is. As long as you handle it competently, you’ll feel good that it happened because you learned something about yourself.
It’s an easy win
Best of all, small talk in Spanish is easy.
Study how to ask open questions. Learn vocabulary for weather and food. Write out a brief resume of your recent past, why you moved there, what you’ve noticed about your new city so far. Brush up on your pleasantries, your salutations and well-wishes.
This is stuff you can and will be repeating over and over, so it’s a no-brainer to practice it with your teacher or at home with flashcards. Here’s a shortlist of things you can study to become a smalltalk expert:
- Questions. Remember, it’s not all about you. Make sure questions like “De donde eres?” and “Cuanto tiempo has vivido aqui?” come quickly and naturally.
- Qué exclamations. Spanish-speakers love these. “¡Qué interesante!” and “¡Qué pena!” are easy ways to react to a story and demonstrate empathy and understanding.
- Closers. Saying things like “Que tengas una buena tarde!” helps you to end on a high. It also helps you practice your subjunctive conjugations!
- Local expressions. Spanish is spoken quite differently amongst the Latin American countries, as you know. Do a bit of research so that you’re aware of local expressions. For example, in parts of Mexico they’ll say ‘Como amaneciste?’ to each other in the morning. This literally translates to “how did you dawn?”
Don’t try too hard
Small talk is supposed to be low-pressure and painless for all involved, so don’t try too hard and certainly don’t panic. No critical information is exchanging hands so there’s no need to be nervous.
Check out our tips on making a good first impression, and go forth into conversations with strangers whenever you get the chance. Hang out in the local coffee shop and chat up the barista. Speak with your neighbours. Remember, not every conversation you have has to change the world. You’re still learning, and the kind of practice you need is that which makes you feel good about your abilities.
Start small, and you’ll be on a fast track to fluency.