Passing the time of day and talking shop: talking about conversations

two women talking and smiling as they sit together on a porch
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by Liz Walter

Talking is one of the most basic things we do. Back in 2019, I wrote a post about collocations connected with communication. This post looks at words that describe various types of conversation.

There are several words and phrases for talking about unimportant things. For instance, if you go to a party, you may be expected to make small talk or make polite conversation. If you pass the time of day with someone, you chat politely, but your conversation is brief and doesn’t include important or very personal information. These phrases are all used most commonly about conversations with people we don’t know well:

I hate having to make small talk with my parents’ guests.

Anna spent the morning making polite conversation with her mother-in-law.

If I meet him in the street, we usually stop and pass the time of day.

Chit-chat is a general word for conversation about unimportant things, usually between people who know one another. When people chatter, they talk fast about unimportant things. In British English, we also use the word natter for this. Chatter and natter can also be used as nouns:

‘How was your conversation with Dan?’ ‘Oh fine – it was just chit-chat really.’

The children were chattering excitedly.

I met up with Rose and we had a good natter.

If you chew the fat with someone, you chat to them in a friendly way for a long time. Americans also use the phrase shoot the breeze for this. When people talk for a long time about subjects like politics and the state of society, we often say in a slightly humorous way that they are setting/putting the world to rights:

I enjoyed chewing the fat with Dominic last night.

We sat on the terrace, shooting the breeze.

They sat up late, putting the world to rights.

If you have a heart-to-heart with someone, you talk seriously and explain your true feelings. When people talk shop, they talk about things connected to their work.

After a heart-to-heart with her parents, Laura decided to give up her university course.

They went out to a restaurant but spent the whole evening talking shop.

I’ll finish with gossip (verb and noun), which is conversation about other people’s private lives. A great collocation for something particularly interesting is juicy gossip. An even more pejorative word for gossip, especially when it isn’t true, is tittle-tattle. American English also has the wonderful word scuttlebutt with the same meaning:

She’s always gossiping about her colleagues.

Come on then, tell me all the juicy gossip.

Is he really her fifth husband, or is that just tittle-tattle/scuttlebutt?

Think about the conversations you have had in the last couple of days. Which of these words and phrases could you use to describe them?

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