We look back on a great month exploring small talk in English. Our final guest post, from fellow blogger and University of Sussex linguist Lynne Murphy, explores the key to making successful small talk in the UK (or more precisely, England).
Earlier in the month Vicki Hollett advised Britons on engaging in small talk with Americans in the US. I’m here to offer the reverse. (Though I’ll stick to small talk in England, which I know better than the rest of Britain.)
Americans abroad have to fight the stereotype of ‘the Ugly American’, so when visiting England, you’re well advised to remember the following:
1. Getting to know the other person is not the initial purpose of small talk in the UK. The purpose is to pass the time without being socially awkward. This is reflected in what Kate Fox (in her excellent Watching the English) calls the ‘No-Name Rule’. She writes:
The ‘Brash American’ approach: ‘Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa’ […] makes the English wince and cringe. The American tourists and visitors I spoke to during my research had been both baffled and hurt by this reaction. ‘I just don’t get it,’ said one woman. ‘You say your name and they sort of wrinkle their noses, like you’ve told them something a bit too personal and embarrassing.’
And it is too personal for the beginning of a conversation in this culture. In making first social contact with an Englishperson, keep the focus away from yourself and your conversational partner. This is why talking about the weather is so common. If you’re daring, you can try other starters like Is this pub always so busy? or What a lovely spread (of food)! Do you know if Linda did it all herself?
2. In talking about the weather, the Englishperson will complain. If it’s rainy, then it’s too wet. If it’s sunny, then it’s too hot. If it’s overcast, it’s miserable. Do not take this as an invitation to complain about it more or contradict them with You call this hot? It’s 90°F where I’m from. Either mildly agree (Yes, it has been a bit much, hasn’t it?) or mildly disagree (I don’t know … I quite like it. It’s good for the plants.) While they may have started the complaint, they don’t really want to hear someone else complaining about the state of their home(land). (And that goes for anything else in England that you as a visitor might want to gripe about. Or anything else in any other country you’re visiting.)
3. Kate Fox emphasizes that the English goal is to “drift” into conversation, “as though by accident”. The usual American ploy of quizzing the other person on what they do for a living, whether they have kids, and so on, goes against this goal. This is why discussion of the immediate environment is so safe. But if the conversation warms up and you feel a connection is growing with the other person, you can move on to more personal topics, if they’re approached casually. One of the standard moving-on-to-the-personal topics is your conversation-partner’s holiday (vacation) plans.
Having broken at least two of these rules this week, I wish you luck and happy drifting!Email this Post