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.