If you learn these phrases and practice them, you will start to feel more comfortable speaking English with friends, colleagues, or strangers.
“What do you do?”
This is the most common question to ask when you meet a new person and want to learn more about them. Native speakers prefer this question to “What’s your job?” or “Are you a student?” because its avoids the awkward situation of giving a negative answer (“Actually, I’m out of work at the moment,” or “No, I’m not a student”). Native speakers tend to feel uncomfortable when they have to respond negatively.
If you have a job, you can say where you work (I work in a school), or the name of your profession (I’m a teacher), or the title of your position (I’m the Director of English Experts Inc.).
If you spend your time differently, you can talk about that instead: I study chemistry at the university / I’m a stay-at-home father / I make videos for YouTube / I’m writing a book about the secret lives of cats.
For people with boring or complicated jobs (or studies), this question may not be fun to talk about. Small talk should be easy and interesting, not an interview or interrogation.
So a better question to ask may be, “What do you do for fun?” or “How do you spend your weekends?” In this case, you should respond with some information about your hobbies or interests: I like to surf / I’m in to photography / I’m writing a book about the secret lives of cats.
Some native speakers also say something more general like “What’s your story?” or “Tell me about yourself”. This gives the other person maximum freedom about what to say (for example: where they are from, where they live, if they have a partner or children), but sometimes these phrases also feel too pushy – as if you’re trying to conduct an interview instead of make small talk.
“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”
When you want to try to start a conversation or make some “small talk” with another person, this is a common question to use. It is an indirect way to ask, “Do you want to make some small talk?”
Notice that the structure here is different from a normal question like “Is it cold outside?” or “What time is it?” English speakers use those questions when they want information (about the temperature, the time, etc). This other structure (called a tag question) starts with your opinion, and then adds a short question at the end, inviting the other person to agree or disagree.
Notice also that the first part of the question is positive, and the second part is negative – or the opposite of the first part. So you can also say “It’s not a very nice day, is it?”
How to respond:
If you want to agree, you can say “Yes, it is” or “Indeed.” These short answers are polite, but they also mean Sorry, I am too tired/busy to make small talk with you right now. If you want to make small talk, you should add some extra information to your answer:
– “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” – “Indeed, it is. I hope it will be nice this weekend too.” – “Oh? What are you planning for the weekend?” – “My friend and I want to go swimming in the lake.” – “That sounds lovely. Do you swim there often?” – “Not so often, nowadays. But we swam there a lot when we were younger…”