small talk

Accidental drifting – small talk in the UK

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).

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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!

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Lynne Murphy

11 Comments

  • Ah, I think you could moved point 3 to the top and then stopped there… that’s as nice a way of describing polite English conversation as I’ve heard. It’s oversimplifying it a little to say that we favour oratio obliqua over the more American oratio directa, but there’s certainly some sense in that.

  • Spot on. Another point might be (2a) avoid anything that might seem like one-upmanship. “You call this hot/busy/tasty etc? Why, back home in Iowa…” is playing right into the undesirable stereotype of the competitive, overconfident, patriotic American who always has something bigger and better to offer. (Don’t Americans stereotypically see Texans this way?)

    Also, it must surely be true anywhere that however much people enjoy running down what’s their own (eg British weather or food) they don’t necessarily want outsiders to join in too heartily with that game. There’s lots of false modesty in British self-deprecation, so don’t go implying you believe them when they say everything’s rubbish. After all if your host apologised for not being much of a cook, you wouldn’t expect to win favour by saying “yes, you got that right!”

  • A big thank you to Vicki and now to Lynne for their illuminating posts. Who knew that the ‘rules’ of small talk in the US and Britain were so different? It’s all so much more subtle – and interesting – than the differences in vocabulary that some people seem to get so steamed up about (as Stan reported).

  • The other thing about the weather is that it tends to be so damn changeable. That doesn’t of course mean it’s always necessarily to talk about the weather, but makes the weather handier for this purpose. I could hardly imagine people living in the Sahara making small talk about it being hot, or Inuit complaining about it being cold!

  • I, an American, spent three years in France, and it was no different from England. The weather was always a safe topic of conversation..

  • Ha! So true! I love it, especially this observation: “The purpose is to pass the time without being socially awkward.”
    Some time ago I had to prepare a group of international students for an American social event that they’d be attending. I made the mistake of expecting it to be like the UK and spent ages preparing them with suitable comments they could make about the immediate environment. After the event, I asked for feedback. Had any of the phrases we’d been working on been useful? Ha! Not at all. Folks had been coming up to them all evening, sticking out their hands and saying things like “Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa”

  • This strikes me as a very class-based guide. These rules work for cocktail parties and faculty meetings but my interactions with more working-class types follow a completely different course than that suggested by these rules. There is also considerable variation by region (I particularly interact with people from t’ North), and age (kids these days!).

    All that aside I think Number One is the main rule. Conversation should not be about you or your interlocutor. I am always shocked by the way working class people throughout the British Isles start up conversations with strangers all the time. As an American from the Northeast it’s mystifying and unpleasant to me. Nevertheless it is still the case that these are not getting-to-know-you chats; they are usually just a bit of cheap laughs capturing a particular moment (and I don’t mean “cheap laughs” in a bad way) and trying to expand them by turning attention to yourself would be nuts.

  • Too right.

    I think it goes back to when the class system was paramount all those years ago.

    People would talk in an inconsequential way about a common subject in order to establish who was socially superior to whom.

  • This feels so inverted. I have, on several occasions, said stuff to people standing near me that probably qualifies as UK-style small-talk (commenting on situations, making observations) without first introducing myself, and fellow Americans just look at me like “Who are you and why are you talking to me?” Go figure.

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