by Alysia Bartley

Casual Conversation in ESL – The Inside Scoop Part III

melbourne coloration festival

So what exactly is casual conversation?

Casual conversation means blabber, chatter, chitchat, gab, gossip, table talk, trivial conversation, jesting, joking, kidding, ribbing, dialoguing, and small talk. – Roget’s Thesaurus 2014.

The more social actions, the more activities you participate in, and the more time you spend with these actions and activities, the more opportunities you have to speak casual English. The most common type of casual English in English-speaking countries and among native English speakers is to use casual talk, even though you don’t know the people you are speaking to very well or you might know them at all. And of course, you speak casual English to people you know really well… mostly your friends, relatives, and family members.

Casual talk usually involves a whole different set of expressions whereby people are less formal with their language. This is particularly true in the choice of vocabulary and grammar. These people might also include more slang and idioms in their talk, as well as drop certain words in their sentences or certain letters in their words. In fact, casual talk might be made up of fewer complete sentences and include lots of short phrases and simple words back and forth between the speakers. You might even use broken English and run-on sentences. And, believe it or not, this is totally acceptable when using casual talk.

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Don’t forget to read part I of ‘2 Ways to Talk Casual and Formal in English‘ and part II of ‘2 More Ways to Talk Casual and Formal in English

Read Part I on 2 More Ways to Talk Casual and Formal in English

Read Part II on 2 More Ways to Talk Casual and Formal in English

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Examples of when to use casual talk

In a typical day, casual talk may consist of talking to the mailman, the newspaper delivery boy, solicitors on the telephone, the gas station attendant, a bus or train official, a store clerk, a postal worker, passerby’s while walking through the city, a restaurant waiter, fellow office employees or colleagues at work, a hairdresser or barber, a receptionist, a customer service representative, a bellhop, and a next door neighbor. It may also involve the ongoing interchange of language between any number of friends, family members, and relatives, as well as among fellow students, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Common adult talk

It is interesting to note that although adults in English-speaking countries may warn younger children to not speak with strangers, it is customary that adults routinely talk to strangers… or at the very least, there is an exchange of a few words… maybe a simple greeting and a comment or two. This, for adults, is considered “normal” to do so and it is considered “out of the norm” not to say any words at all.  Some people may view you as impolite if you do not talk to them and instead choose to ignore the person or people that you encounter.

Favorite expressions

One of the favorite casual expressions for native English speakers is to say “How are you doing?” or another casual greeting like “hello” or “hi”. Yet, more often than not, the person asking the question is not really interested in hearing your reply. Therefore, you don’t need to wait for an answer. You can acknowledge what the person says by your facial expression or gestures alone, and maybe a quick one-two word reply like “fine, thanks” or “fine, and you?”

Likewise, if you hear the phrase “see you later” when someone departs, this expression does not literally translate into the person wanting to see you in the near future or any other time for that matter… it may imply this, but it just might mean nothing more than another version of good-bye and you might not ever see the person again. In other words, the use of the expression does not necessarily equate to expressing a desire to see the person at another time in the future.

Topics to discuss

Surprised geek

Casual talk usually centers around topics that most anyone can discuss. These topics are not controversial in any way. Quite the opposite, they are considered “safe” topics like talking about the weather, an entertainment or sports event, or possibly a well-known current event (i.e. although not political or religious in any way).  It is also advisable to talk about some common observation, again not at all controversial in nature. For example, if you are sitting in a city park, you might mention the number or kinds of birds or a unique statue nearby, a cute dog you see with its owner, and the various flowers in the many gardens; or if you are in a restaurant, you could comment on the lovely décor or the extended menu items, a favorite food or recipe to try, or even share a related anecdote or an appropriate joke depending on the group you are with.

However, there are some topics that are not generally regarded as okay to talk about. These include such things as people’s salaries and other topics related to money, taxes and expenditures of items; marital situations especially those that are negative like a separation or recent divorce, people’s ages and especially women’s ages (unless you are talking about children or babies) and their weight (i.e. how much a baby weighs when he/she is born is usually fine to talk about). It is best also not to gossip about others and to not speak negatively about any people, situations, and so on.

It is not appropriate to share your personal issues either as you don’t know if the people you speak with are first of all okay hearing all about this and secondly, you don’t really know if the people are trustworthy in keeping the information to themselves. In addition, you should not continue talking about something that you sense makes the other person feel uncomfortable talking about or listening to, or a topic that the person is not obviously interested in.

If you have trouble discerning this (i.e. uncomfortableness or non-interest), think of how you react when someone talks to you and you are not comfortable in that situation or not interested in having that conversation, etc. How do you react? This might help you with interpreting how others feel and emphasizing with them if they are disinterested in talking, etc.

Casual talk just about everywhere

Group of teenage school girls against a city fountain

Casual talk is just about everywhere. Often, it is exchanged when people are waiting… waiting for public transport… waiting for an appointment in the doctor’s or dentist’s office… waiting in lines at the movie theater or any type of store, etc. It is also routinely used when standing around by the coffee or fax machine at an office… in the elevator, cafeteria, break room, and bathroom. Many social events also invite small talk like at various types of parties whether out at a restaurant, bar, hotel, or a party hosted at a private residence.

If you go to a gym or other workout facility, participate in a recreational sport or play a sport in team competition, join a local hobby or societal club, etc. – no doubt, you will be surrounded by casual talk. Basically, you talk to a variety of people in any of these informal situations which helps build your casual language and your English language skills. It boosts your confidence and your ESL ability. It builds your ESL listening and speaking skills which enhance your ESL reading and writing skills.

Even in a more formal work “associated” situation like a job interview, in a class or workshop, or during a meeting or presentation, there is a level of acceptable casual talk in which you will be engaged in. You might think that this is not true, especially at a job interview, but often before an interview begins, there is an element of small talk to lighten up the situation and put everyone at ease. If you are touring the prospective company or facility, then this is an ideal situation for casual talk, too. The interviewer might talk a little about the weather, ask how your ride/commute was to the interview, and chat a little about your hometown, etc. If he finds you have some interest or background information in common, he will undoubtedly use casual language to talk about that, too.

In addition, the very first time you see or meet someone you have not seen before more than likely will involve a higher level of small talk. You can exchange your name, what you do or where you live, and why you are at that function (i.e. friend of so-and-so, work with so-and-so, etc.) Likewise, if you get to know someone better and develop any type of ongoing relationship, this relationship most likely involves even more frequent casual talk. You will want to “catch up” on news about this person’s life and family along with chatting about things you share in common. As your friendship develops further and you spend even more time together, you will undoubtedly engage in more casual talk about day to day happenings, future jaunts, etc.

When not to talk casually

students studying in classroom

Normally, if two or more people are already talking and you don’t know these people, it is inappropriate to barge in on their discussion or to even listen in on their conversation, for that matter. You could offer a smile or a short greeting of “hi”, “hello”, “how are you”… when you see them or pass by them. It is also not appropriate to interrupt someone with an exchange of unimportant information like the weather or something that has happened recently when another person is obviously busy (i.e. writing a letter, talking or texting on the phone, reading a newspaper or book, etc.). And it is also important for you to sense if the other person wants to engage in any type of conversation or not. If you realize that he/she does not want to talk, then you should not do so. A simple greeting, smile, or nod to acknowledge the other person will do.

Importance of casual talk

You might be wondering what is the purpose of casual talk. Often, it is used to make others feel more comfortable in the given situation. It helps break an awkward silence. And it simply fills up time. By using casual talk, you show an awareness of the other person and that you are interested in their well-being and/or in hearing their thoughts and any opinions they might have. You display your manners by being polite, and go about your day noticing and engaging others rather than merely ignoring them and showing a sense of indifference. Think of when you have heard or used casual talk before. Has it made you feel more comfortable? Has it broken down some silence? Has it filled up time? I think you can begin to understand and appreciate more of what the importance of casual talk is.

Overall tips to remember

A reminder note

  • Ask open-ended questions to get the other person to talk and to make the other person feel important rather than restricting yourself to “yes” and “no” questions. These open-ended questions will lead to more in-depth conversation.
  • Try to remain positive with any comments you say.
  • Respond during silent or awkward moments but with sensitivity to the other person.
  • Don’t involve questions that are in any form too personal or threatening in any way.
  • Maintain a balance between comments and questions.
  • Allow space for the other person to engage in conversation and to have his/her own space, too. Don’t pressure them to talk.
  • Ask yourself, is this a question you would want to answer yourself?  If it is, go for it. If not, see how you can change the question to make it more inviting. And is the conversation something you want to comment on? Again, if so, go for it. Otherwise, change the conversation.

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Don’t forget to read part I of ‘2 Ways to Talk Casual and Formal in English‘ and part II of ‘2 More Ways to Talk Casual and Formal in English

Read Part I on 2 More Ways to Talk Casual and Formal in English

Read Part II on 2 More Ways to Talk Casual and Formal in English

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In conclusion – Casual English

Have you heard any casual English language today? Do you have a favorite expression to use? Write to me in the space below and share your thoughts about casual English. Go ahead… I invite you to blabber, chatter, chitchat, gab, gossip… to share table talk, partake in a trivial conversation, or use jesting, joking, kidding, ribbing, dialoguing, and small talk.

And if I can help in any way for you to develop your English as a Second Language Skills and to help you move forward in your goal of learning a second language, let me know that, too. Go ahead… I invite you to blabber, chatter, chitchat, gab, gossip… to share table talk, partake in a trivial conversation, or use jesting, joking, kidding, ribbing, dialoguing, and small talk about that, too.

Young Aviators in an aircraft in a hangar with these planes

About the author:

Alysia is a co-founder of TalktoCanada. Since founding the online English teaching company in 2006, she has gone on to teach over 10,000 hours of online classes and managed large and small English training projects around the world. During her free time you can find her listening to the latest business book, travelling and going to the gym.