E-Mail 'Accidental drifting – small talk in the UK' To A Friend

Email a copy of 'Accidental drifting – small talk in the UK' to a friend

* Required Field

Separate multiple entries with a comma. Maximum 5 entries.

Separate multiple entries with a comma. Maximum 5 entries.

E-Mail Image Verification

Loading ... Loading ...


  • 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.