Social Skills

Starting a Conversation with "Small Talk"

Preferred Discussion Topics

When they first encounter another person, American's engage in a kind of conversation they call "small talk." The most common topic of small talk is the weather; another very common topic is the speakers' current physical surroundings--the room or building they are in, the sidewalk where they are standing, or whatever is appropriate. later, after the preliminaries, Americans may talk about past experiences they have both had, such as watching a particular TV program, going to New York, or eating at a particular restaurant.

Beyond these very general topics of small talk, there is variation according to the life situation of the people involved and the setting in which the conversation is taking place. Students are likely to talk about their teachers and classes; if they are of the same sex, they are likely to discuss their social lives. Adults may discuss their jobs, recreational interests, houses, or family matters. men are likely to talk about sports or cars. Housewives, whose numbers are steadily decreasing in American society, are likely to talk about their children, if they have any, or about household matters or personal care (e.g., hairdos).

Americans are explicitly taught not to discuss religion and politics unless  they are fairly well acquainted with the people they are talking to. (In public meetings Americans will openly debate about political matters, but we are talking here about communicative style in interpersonal situations.) Politics and religion are thought to be a controversial topic that can lead to an argument. Americans, as we will discuss under "Favorite Forms of Interaction," are taught to avoid arguments.

There are other topics Americans generally avoid because they are "too personal." Financial matters is one. Inquiries about a person's earnings or about the amount someone paid for an item are usually beyond the bounds of acceptable topics.

People prefer to use their own communicative styles. That means, among other things, they prefer to abide by their own ideas about conversation topics that are appropriate for any given situation. Foreigners who have different ideas from Americans about what topics are appropriate for a particular setting are very likely to feel uncomfortable when they are talking with Americans. They do not feel they can participate in the conversation on an equal footing. But the Americans resist (quite unconsciously) their attempts to bring up a different topic.

Listening to Americans small talk leads some foreigners to the erroneous conclusion that Americans are intellectually incapable of carrying on a discussion about anything significant. Some foreigners believe that topics more complex than weather, sports, or socials lives are beyond the American's ability to comprehend.

Favorite Forms of Interaction

The typical conversation between Americans takes a form that can be called repartee. No one speaks for very long. Speakers take turns frequently, often after only a few sentences have been spoken. "Watching a conversation between two Americans is like watching a table tennis game," a British observer said. "Your head goes back and forth and back and forth so fast it almost makes your neck hurt."

Americans tend to be impatient with people who take long turns. Such people are said to "talk too much." many Americans have difficulty paying attention to someone who speaks more than a few sentences at a time, as Nigerians, Arabs, and some others do. Americans admire conciseness, or what they call "getting to the point."

Americans engage in a little ritual interaction. Only a few ritual interchanges are common: "How are you?" "I'm fine, thank you." "Nice to meet you," and "Hope to see you again." These things are said under certain circumstances Americans learn to recognize, and, like any ritual interchanges, are concerned more with form than with substance. That is, the questions are supposed to be asked and the statements are supposed to be made in particular circumstances, no matter what the people involved are feeling or what they really have in mind. In many Americans' opinions, people who rely heavily on ritual interchanges are "too shy" or "too polite," unwilling to reveal their true natures and ideas.

Americans are generally impatient with long ritual interchanges about family members' health (common among Latin Americans) or invocations of a supreme being's goodwill (common among Arabs) considering them a waste of time.

A third form of interaction, one Americans tend to avoid, is an argument. Americans seem to suppose that an argument with another person might result in termination or their relationship. They do not conceive of argument as a sport or a pleasurable pastime. If Americans are in a discussion in which a difference of opinion is emerging, they are likely to say, "Let's not get into an argument about this." Rather than argue, they will prefer to find areas of agreement, change the topic, or even physically move away from the person they have been talking to. Not surprisingly, people who like argue are likely to be labeled "push," "aggressive," or "opinionated."

If an argument is unavoidable, Americans believe it should be conducted in calm, moderate tones and with a minimum of gesturing. Loud voices, vigorous use of arms, more than one person talking at a time--to most Americans these are signs that a physical fight, or a least an unproductive "shouting match," might develop. They believe people should "stay cool" when presenting their viewpoints.

This is not to say that no Americans argue. Certainly there are those that do, even in interpersonal situations. Generally, though, they prefer not to. One result of their aversion to arguing is that they get little practice in verbally defending their viewpoints. And one result of that, in turn, is that they may appear less intelligent than they actually are.

A fourth and final form of interaction is self-disclosure. Conversations with a large amount of small talk (or of ritual interchange) usually produce little self-disclosure. That is, the people involved reveal little if anything about their personal lives or situations. What Americans regard as "personal" in this context is their feelings and their opinions about controversial matters. In most situations Americans reveal little that is personal. Women will disclose more about themselves to other women than they will to men and then men will to anyone. Of course, much more self-revelation takes place in the context of a close friendship.

Americans are probably not extreme with respect to the amount of self-disclosure that takes place in interpersonal encounters. Foreign visitors who are accustomed to more self-revelation may feel frustrated in their efforts to get to know Americans. Those accustomed to less self-disclosure may be embarrassed by some of the things Americans do talk about.