A few weeks ago I was teaching a group of personal and team assistants (PAs) I hadn’t met before how to assist international teams. This group didn’t need to go over critical incidents they’d had with foreign team members. Instead, they said their biggest challenge was making small talk with their visiting American team members. So that’s what we practiced.
Going through standard activities – getting phrases right, extending dialogues, developing initial and follow-up questions, roleplaying first meetings – I noticed that their conversations seemed too artificial to engage anyone. In short, they didn’t know how to get their partners talking.
So I used and adapted a great activity or game developed by Jo Westcombe. She calls it “Flies on the windscreen” and you can read about it here. Jo’s basic idea is that two people are sitting in a car on their way back from the airport, where one has just picked up the other. It’s slightly “surreal”, she says, as cards with small talk topics “hit the windscreen” like so many flies, and the two people must respond to them smoothly.
With these very down-to-earth PAs, who had no trouble speaking but couldn’t get their partner to say anything, I realized it would need to be adapted, and so renamed it “Driver’s seat”. This is based on the concept that the hostess/host should take a proactive role in moving the small talk forward, and discover pleasant areas of common interest to build a friendly, relaxed social relationship on.
This is the hostess’/host’s brief:
- You’re in the driver’s seat! You’re responsible for keeping the conversation going. Find out what your visitor is really interested in.
- Discover pleasant areas that interest both of you.
- Stick to and share general topics.
- Lead the way with yes/no questions.
- Follow up with more open questions.
- Give tips, but also be authentic.
- Goal: Make it a really good conversation.
This is the visitor’s brief:
- You’re visiting for the first time.
- Your host’s PA is picking you up.
- She may be pleasant and helpful, she may not be.
- Look at the topic cards on the table. Select three that really interest you. Don’t show anyone your cards.
- Don’t introduce these topics, that would be impolite. Wait for your host’s PA to mention them.
- Talk about topics that interest you, politely ignore others.
- Share general topics.
- Goal: Enjoy the ride.
1. Bring or have your group make up cards with a wide range of relatively “safe” topics and a few tricky ones thrown in (politics, religion, health, love). (Click on the link for readymade ones: Small talk topics)
2. Divide the class in two – drivers and passengers – and give each half their brief to discuss as a group.
3. Spread all of the cards out on a table and let the passengers each pick out 3 cards containing topics that they are truly interested in. These topics must remain secret.
4. Each “driver” then sits next to a “passenger”, and they play driving from the station or airport. They make small talk, from “How was the trip?” on. Pairs work in parallel. Teacher (and perhaps a student assistant) monitors and takes notes of what words the pairs find they lack.
5. Debrief. “What did you learn? What was easy? What was hard? What do you want to work on?”
6. Then switch roles and do it again.
I think this was the most successful activity we did that day. I’ll be doing it again with a new group next week.
Note: This article by Anne Hodgson originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.