Context Matters with Conversation Idioms

“Confidence contributes more to conversation than wit.”

~Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), French writer


Conversation styles are wonderfully varied. Just as one size never truly fits all, one conversational approach may not be appropriate depending on the situation. Fortunately, in the English language there are myriad idioms we use to distinguish these different modes of conversation.

Here’s a quick rundown of a few noteworthy idioms to share with your English classrooms. Use your judgment as a teacher as to which idioms and expressions are appropriate for your particular school, class and student population:

Water Cooler Conversation – Workers in offices and other work sites congregate and gossip when getting glasses of water at the water cooler, or cups of coffee in commons or kitchen. “Water cooler conversation” usually consists of talking about what was on TV programs, movies, sports, general chat, “small talk,” (see below) and office gossip.

Small talk – make conversation about the weather, sports, family and other prosaic, everyday topics, usually to start a conversation, socialize with and get to know strangers, or acknowledge respect for and awareness of co-workers, relatives, and other people.

Chit Chat – Innocent small talk. It can become disruptive and distracting when it occurs during class.

Back talk – A heated response, often to a parent or other authority figure, usually without listening or considering what the other person has to say.

Talk past each other – Arguing couples, co-workers and others who state their opinions without listening to what the other person has to say.

NOTE: You can explain that Americans tend to feel uncomfortable and awkward with moments of silence. This feeling differs from some other cultures and language groups, such as Japan, where silent stretches in conversation are prized as moments of harmony. This difference is good to keep in mind, as sometimes people from other countries can perceive Americans as talking continuously, whether or not they have anything to say.

What are some other idioms we use?

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