Small talk month continues with a guest post by English teacher, coursebook author and fellow blogger Vicki Hollett from Learning to speak ’merican on tips for small talk in the US.
Here are some quick tips for Brits who are crossing the pond.
First, starting conversations:
Follow normal practice and comment on the weather. It’s hard to go wrong. One thing to watch out for though – don’t complain too much. We can establish solidarity by having a grumble together in the UK.
‘Terrible day, isn’t it?’
‘And they say tomorrow will be worse.’ etc.
The same thing can happen here too, but Americans don’t engage in ritual moans quite as much with strangers. So try to think positive, or just pick nice days to talk about the weather.
This gets tricky. Americans often use compliments to start conversations with complete strangers. So they might tell you how much they like your earrings, tie, accent or whatever, which can be uncomfortable. What right have they got to pass judgment on you? Aren’t they being fake? And how should you respond?
The key to handling this is to understand it’s a just a ritual. Think of it as equivalent to ‘It’s a nice day today, isn’t it?’ It simply means ‘I’m happy to talk if you are’, so the answer you give is pretty irrelevant as long as it’s agreeable. Any hint of contradiction will throw the American into disarray so instead tell them where you got the earrings or tie. Or repay the compliment and say you love their accent too. Modesty is important in the US, but in this circumstance, it takes a back seat to signaling agreement.
Finally, saying farewell:
You’re going to find this so easy. Do nothing. The Americans will do it all for you and they are so much better at it.
You know how we have the expression ‘saying our goodbyes’ in British English? Americans don’t have it. They just ‘say goodbye’ because they only need to do it once. So you can forget all our, ‘Is that the time?’, ‘I really should be going …’, ‘Well, anyway …’ nonsense. And you know that situation where we start getting out the door and someone says something which means we have to go back to the beginning of the conversation and start all over again? It doesn’t happen here.
So let the Americans handle the farewell. They will do it with aplomb with phrases like ‘Take care’ and ‘It’s been nice talking to you’ and ‘Catch you later’ – things our mothers should have taught us. Just keep quiet, listen and learn.