Is small talk different in the US and UK? Yes!

Posted by on July 20, 2011

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.

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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.

Next, responding:
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.

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Comments (11)
  • The last point reminded me of a time back in college when a fellow student (an American) had invited me round for coffee at his place.

    After we’d had our coffees, in typical English style, I wanted to excuse myself without being too abrupt. So I said something along the lines of “Well, I really must be going or I’ll be here all night”.

    This is an English person’s way of saying: “I am desperate to leave but I don’t want you to think that I’m not having a fabulous time. So to spare your feelings, I’m going to pretend that I’m having to drag myself away from your wonderfully entertaining company.”

    A fellow Brit would have automatically understood this subtext (and, in fact, responded with some more polite stock phrases designed to get their guest out of the door while sparing their feelings by implying it’s a terrible shame they have to leave so early).

    Anyway, the following day, someone told me they’d heard I had made a pass at this guy the previous night. Unaware of the subtleties of English small talk, my American friend had interpreted my polite farewell as a hint that I’d really rather have stayed over!

    We are, as they say, two nations separated by a common language…

    Posted by Clare on 20th July, 2011
  • I’m an American who’s been away for 12 years and couldn’t get the hang of small talk before I left, so thanks for this Remedial Merkin post.

    Posted by Michael LaRocca on 21st July, 2011
  • Americans generally aren’t starting a conversation when we compliment. Most often, it truly is a simple affirmation, or appreciation for style (something we’re lacking compared to our European counterparts). There is no needed ongoing response, other than a smile and “thank you.”

    Posted by Mary Cullen on 21st July, 2011
  • Clare – what a wonderful story! Love it!
    Thanks Michael – glad you liked it.
    Mary – yes, compliments aren’t only used to start conversations in America – people pay them in lots of different situations, but I think the ‘opening-a-conversation’ use is one that’s most surprising for Brits. ‘Smile and say thank you’ seems to be another thing American mothers teach their kids because if you ask Americans how to respond to compliments, it’s what they’ll often say. But curiously, it’s not what they generally do. In studies, around two thirds of the time they’ll find away to deflect, downgrade, ignore or something else to avoid accepting the compliment somehow. So the modesty principle generally wins out. For folks who are interested, there’s a summary of some the research on American compliments here: http://www.carla.umn.edu/speechacts/compliments/american.html

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 22nd July, 2011
  • […] Jan Freeman at The Boston Globe talked pants, while Vickie Hollett at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog explored the British and American differences in small talk, including Americans’ skill at saying goodbye. Stan Carey saw no sense in an academy of […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 22nd July, 2011
  • […] The post is aimed at Brits interacting with Americans. I thought it might be interesting for Americans to get a British perspective on their small talk. An extract: 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. (Source: Macmillan Dictionary Blog) […]

    Posted by Listen & Learn » Blog Archive » Small talk in the UK vs the US on 23rd July, 2011
  • It’s also important for non-Americans to understand that American compliments are sincere, but limited. If an American says they like your shoes, they really do like your shoes. It doesn’t necessarily mean they like you, or are hitting on you, or anything like that.

    Posted by John Cowan on 30th July, 2011
  • Vicki,

    Love the blog! (American affirmation of your willingness to put yourself out there.)

    I have found that the British sometimes misinterpret American friendliness in conversation. We are not quite as open as it may seem. There are unspoken rules about how far to go in chit chat. Several times British people have taken my seeming openness as a cue to pour out details, sometimes embarassing details about their lives. Other times a pleasant conversation has been seen to be a real connection leading to a friendship when I was just passing the time on the train. It’s just conversation; it doesn’t mean we’re best buds for life. It’s very embarassing on both sides when this happens.

    Posted by Jane on the Plains on 10th August, 2011
  • Definitely agree with you here, for one us Brits would only ever call the Queen ma’am!

    Posted by Web Design Southampton on 6th October, 2011
  • This post was very interesting for my students to read.Thank you very much!

    Posted by Alla on 21st February, 2012
  • Great article! Love how you go through the differences. Totally found the statements to be true.

    Posted by Chris on 17th June, 2014
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