Opinion

The importance of small talk | Ann Oxrieder

 

Recently, a friend and I began leading an informal English conversation group for parents at a local elementary school.   Most participants spoke Japanese as their first language and most had a similar level of English fluency, that is, they could speak in complete sentences, though some knew more complex grammar and had larger vocabularies than others.

I found that thinking of topics that would excite the "students'" interest and trigger a conversation lasting for at least 45 minutes created more of a challenge than working with different levels of English proficiency.

After the parents responded well to a warm-up question – If someone gave you $1,000 just for you, what would you buy and where would you buy it? – we divided them into small groups to respond to our prepared questions on a subject we thought they’d want to talk about: the American school system.

We were wrong. What did they really wanted to learn? "When I see the mother of my child's friend, after I say hello and ask her how she is, what do I say next?" In other words, small talk.

Small talk is an art and some of us are better at it than others.  Knowing English well makes it easier, but there is no formula that works for everyone.

I'm certainly no expert on this topic, though I can suggest they ask other questions, that is, if they know anything about the person to whom they’re speaking.

Of course I should warn them about which questions not to ask. I still remember visiting a friend in Mexico who hadn't seen me for a year. After the initial greeting, she said, "Haven't you gotten fatter since I last saw you?"

That wasn't my idea of small talk.

 

Ann Oxrieder has lived in Bellevue for 35 years. She retired after 25 years as an administrator in the Bellevue School District and now blogs about retirement at http://stillalife.wordpress.com/.

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