Small Talk Topics

Do you know what questions are okay to ask Americans and which questions will offend them?

Do you know what questions are okay to ask Americans and which questions will offend them?

Making Small Talk with Americans

Americans are used to making small talk and will frequently strike up a conversation, even with strangers, for example, waiting in a check-out line. For newcomers to the U.S., it is in your best interest to learn the skill of having brief social exchanges with co-workers, neighbors, and people at parties.

Below is a list of possible conversation topics with American acquaintances. Which ones do you think are appropriate to bring up?  Let’s take a look at the first one.  In your culture, is it appropriate to ask someone his/her marital status?

Actually, it is not an appropriate question.  The question has a normative bias to it.  That is, it assumes that getting married is “normal” in society, and this is not true.  For starters, some people are quite happy by themselves and choose not to marry.  Others may be divorced or widowed and uncomfortable talking about it.  Still others may wish to be married but have never been asked.  And finally, it is still not legal in many U.S. states for gay and lesbian adults to marry, so again, this would make some people sad to have to answer “no.”

The other answers to these potential topics can be found in the list below.  Check them out before striking up a conversation with a stranger at a party.

TOPIC:                   APPROPRIATE OR NOT?

marital status        No, as discussed above.

age                        No, Americans don't talk about their age (unless they're students with you).

occupation            Yes, great topic.  "So, what do you do?"  Or: "What are you studying?"

salary                     No, Americans are uncomfortable talking about money.

education              Maybe. No: "Did you go to college?" Yes: "Where did you go to school?"

length of time in this area    Yes, great conversation topic!

weight                     No, this is too personal.

travel interests       Yes, this is a wonderful conversation topic.

family                      Depends. No: "Do you have children?" Yes: "Do you have brothers/sisters?"  

hobbies and pastimes     Yes, this is not only acceptable but also interesting.

political party membership     No, avoid politics with Americans you don't know well.

height                                 No, this is too personal.

cost of person’s watch      No. Remember: no topics related to money.

religion                               No, this is considered too personal.

who person voted for       Nope. Remember: no politics. 

person’s ethnic origin       Maybe. Yes: "That's an interesting last name. Where is it from?"

hometown                          Yes. You can learn a lot by asking about their hometown.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.