“BUT WHY DO AMERICANS HAVE TO TALK TO ME IN THE ELEVATOR?”
“WHY DO YOU ALL SPEND SO MUCH TIME TALKING ABOUT NOTHING OF SIGNIFICANCE?”
My accent refinement clients have often commented to the chit-chat style that is All-American. We like to talk about nothing and everything, and we don’t really always want to know the details.
🤷♀️🤷♂️How is a transplanted non-native speaker supposed to know what to do or say to a common greeting such as, “What’s new?” Ummm… My watch? I got a pay raise? Oddly, if you listen to enough American English greetings, you’ll find out that there really is a script and the respondent generally says something like, “Not much” or “Same old, same old.” You might ask yourself what the point of the question was if there was really no answer per se. Well, plain and simple…connection.
🔮In a magical world where a genie could grant the ability for you to make your accent turn on and off at will, you might think you’d won the communication lottery. Advancements await. Repeating yourself on the phone ends. The fear of wondering whether you pronounced “sheet” like “sh*t” would be a thing of the past.
Only one thing…If it was all about how you say words, you’d be golden, but you might hope that genie has one more wish to grant- the gift of something we call small talk.
Only, there is nothing small about it. It’s a big deal in the US communication culture. It has nothing to do with how you say words but rather how you develop bridges to communication, because it’s also about how you USE words and other subtleties of communication that help one really blend into a non-native culture.
💲☕As Americans we have a need to fill silence as well as a need to ease into business deals from taking your money at the coffee shop for your latte to making a contract deal in business. In fact we call it awkward silence when there are pauses of silence…awkward meaning weird. Something must be resurrected in that space, or the common American often feels generally like something is “off” in the communication transaction. The awkward silences or lack of small talk for greeting may leave the native American English speaker feeling everything from a feeling of someone being too abrupt, unfriendly, or in the healthcare arena that a provider has “poor bedside manner.”
“Hey, man! How’s it going?”
“Is that rain coming?”
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO TO MAKE SMALL TALK PART OF YOUR TALK?
✔Listen and learn: Pay attention to the person in front of you at Starbucks and to native American English speakers at work or even on television. Watch and learn some of the common greetings and salutations. Walking away abruptly without saying, “Have a good one” or “Take care,” might be perceived as either rude or that you had a bathroom emergency about to happen!
✔Practice Makes Perfect: As odd as it feels to utter such informalities at a work social function such as, “Are you from around here?” or “What a great venue for a party!” the more you engage the art of small talk, the more natural it will feel and the more you will see how American speakers will warm up to you. Small talk builds rapport and trust, so it’s vitally important for business casual talk that might lead to a deal.
✔ Don’t mistake friendliness for friendship. No need to fear that all these people who you may engage friendly talk will want to be your BFF (best friend forever). Americans like to be friendly and have a strong sense of egalitarianism or the need to show everyone as equals, so to be invited into a small talk conversation or for you to initiate that conversation shows that one does not perceive himself above anyone else. I promise most people won’t be asking to come to your house after a quick exchange of banter, and remember this type of conversation is to stay light, so you talk about likes, weather, food, the World Series…and that brings me to.
✔Keep up with current events in the general culture. Perhaps you hate American football, but if it’s Super Bowl week, you can say something like, “Do you have Superbowl plans?” If you play your small talk cards right, you just might end up invited to a Superbowl party to “hang out.” Sometimes an American’s friendliness may lead to an interest in building an acquaintance relationship, but remember we don’t take declined invites too seriously either. A simple, “I won’t be able to make it but thanks for the invite,” will do just fine.