"When in Rome, do as the Romans do." What may be perfectly acceptable to talk about in one culture may offend or even shock others when in a different culture. Accordingly, it is important to know what topics are "safe" to discuss with strangers or acquaintances from a different background. Topics which can be discussed freely within a culture are referred to as "small talk."
As with any other language, English has its own stock of non-offensive topics. Among these are the weather, occupation, immediate conditions, family and family life, and school or work. Topics in English which should never be broached include one's personal life, physical appearance (unless complimentary), income, and age as well as religious, sexual, or political views. Each of these topics——both approved and taboo —— will be discussed more detail later.
Small talk is extremely useful when first meeting others. Actually, one purpose of small talk is not to find out the answers to questions like "How are you?" or "Nice day, isn't it?" but rather to gauge whether the person is the sort whom one would like to know better. While talking about essentially unimportant matters such as the weather, life in the office, or how many children —— if any —— one has, each speaker has the opportunity to determine whether the other is cooperative, interesting, potentially useful or friendly, etc. If a person answers the inquiry about the weather with a grunt or "I hate sunny days," no further energy need be wasted!
Another purpose of small talk, once a speaker is satisfied that the other person is worth talking with, is to explore possible areas of interest or cooperation. By tactfully going through "safe topics," some information may be revealed which leads the speaker(s) into a deeper discussion, especially when a topic is a shared hobby or interest. Talking about the weather may reveal that one speaker enjoys recreation like camping or hiking. Shooting the breeze about one's family may disclose similar shared family hobbies like board or card games or barbecues and picnics. In other words, small talk may serve as probing of the other person's personality and lifestyle.
"Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it," so goes an old saying. Perhaps the safest of all small talk topics is the weather. Whether good or bad, a comment about the temperature or sky condition (sunny day, cloudy day, rainy day, etc.) never offends. Commenting on the crowded traffic or the late bus, or high prices in the department store (immediate conditions) is also always appropriate. Similarly, most people do not mind talking about their work, family, or school life, either, since for most people these are experiences held in common. Even so, asking whether someone is married or not crosses over into personal information and therefore should be avoided. If the speaker happens to mention that he or she has children or is married, however, it is all right to pursue the topic.
Asking such questions as "How much do you weigh?" "How old are you?" or "How much do you earn?" are taboo in English, at least as starters for conversation. Only when friends are close would they ask such questions of each other. Likewise, for most people, religious or political convictions or sexual mores are considered private matters. These should not be discussed until one speaker offers his opinion first. It is not necessary, though, to respond in kind. The other speaker can change the subject to show that this is a taboo subject.
Foreigners are usually "forgiven" the "indiscretion" of asking others offending questions. Still, it is not a good idea to wear out one's welcome. When a subject has been turned down, only a tactless person would pursue it. Being sensitive to others' feelings and sense of privacy will win more friends and influence more people than a reckless line of questioning. When curiosity seems to be getting the upper hand, remember that "Silence is golden."