In Western culture, you don't have to be afraid of talking about things that are not work-related. At my own workplace, many colleagues even prefer to ban any work-related talk during lunch break. They argue that work hours are work time and lunch break is free time, so they want to do and talk about things that don't directly contribute to their work.
I see and hear my colleagues talk about private stuff often enough during work hours, just to have a short break and "free their mind" for a few minutes.
As far as I know, small talk differs a little between Asian and Western cultures. In Western culture, there usually isn't a dominant speaker or moderator who leads the talk into a certain direction or makes sure everyone is included into the conversation. People just say whatever they currently think about and take turns speaking. That also means you have to start speaking unsolicited to be part of the conversation.
It is absolutely acceptable to join a conversation if:
- You listened to what the people are talking about for a short time, just to understand the topic and make sure you can contribute to the talk instead of changing the topic.
- The topic is appropriate. If people are talking about serious or private matters (like politics, finances, age or health issues or relationship breakups) you should not intervene. If people are just talking about their last weekend, holiday plans or whatever they heard in the news, it's safe to join the conversation.
- You keep the mood. You should be able to pick up the mood of the people quite easily. Just like you shouldn't suddenly change the topic, you shouldn't change the mood by making jokes or laughing in a more serious conversation.
Once you decided to join a conversation, there is a certain etiquette to follow. Don't be afraid to make any mistakes. These rules are designed to make conversations enjoyable for everyone involved. You should know them, but usually no-one will reprimand you if you make mistakes. I know more than enough people who ignore or break some of these rules regularily. They still participate in conversations, some people just don't like talking to them as much.
- Try not to interrupt other speakers. Wait until they finished a sentence before speaking.
- Look at the person you're addressing, but don't stare them in the eyes. If you talk with several people, look at everyone in turn to include them in the conversation.
- Smile if it fits the situation. Keep your body language open (don't fold your arms in fron of your body like a wall).
- Respect personal space. Stay close enough to be part of the conversation, but keep around an arm's length of space between you and others.
- If you don't know a person or a certain topic very well, ask questions to show your interest.
- Dont dominate the conversation. Say a few things, then make a pause to allow other people to speak.
- Don't randomly change the topic. Let the conversation flow naturally from one topic to the next without abruptly changing it.
- Don't gossip about other people or tell rude jokes.
- Don't insist on convincing anyone. Every person has their own oppinions and often enough you're not convinced of someones oppinion, just like you cannot convince them. It's ok to disagree and acknowledge this disagreement, but you should not start a fight because of that.
More about small talk etiquette can be found on
Your question suggests that finding the right moment to speak is your biggest problem. If someone asks you a question, there is no doubt you are supposed to speak. But in small talk each person usually has to start talking unsolicited whenever they want to speak. You can use small words and sounds that announce that you want to speak without interrupting the current speaker. You just say the first word while the previous speaker might still be talking, then wait until they finished and you have the oppostunity to complete your sentence. Some examples are:
Well [pause], I heard a different story...
Uhm [pause], I heard that...
Oh [pause], I heard about that...
Huh [pause], I never heard about that...
Wow [pause], I never thaught...
I'm sure there are things that are very different in your home country, like local flora and fauna, customs and traditions or cultural events. Talking about the differences and similarities of our cultures can be very interesting to your colleagues. And even if you don't want to talk about your home country, you are a unique person with unique memories and experiences. Just getting to know you can be interesting for your colleagues as well. There is no reason at all to assume that you can only talk to them about work because otherwise you might say something wrong or boring.
I found a very good article on how to do smalltalk that is intended for introverts, but I think it will help you a lot. Forbes: An Introvert's Guide To Small Talk
The main advice summed up is:
- Reduce your own anxiety by being aware of it and what caused it
- Remind yourself that smalltalk can be the foundation to have deeper conversations and build relationships with people
- Show interest in the topic and what the other person has to say
- If you are uncomfortable disclosing information about you, ask questions instead
- Instead of asking simple questions that can be answered in one word, ask open-ended questions that can inspire discussions.
- Do not provide one-word, closed responses; these cut the conversation short. Instead, embellish your responses with juicy tidbits of information.