Can making small talk help you fit in with native English speakers?

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture”- Frantz Fanon

Let me ask you a question. Do you find that even though you have an upper-intermediate or advanced level of English, you still struggle to fit in with native English speakers?

The problem might not be your English level. Rather, it is probably understanding culture.

“What does culture have to do with fitting in with native English speakers?” you may ask.

In order to fit in with native English speakers, you need to understand anglophone culture. Of course, even cultures vary among English-speaking countries but there are certain things they all have in common.

Making small talk is a common practice in many English-speaking countries. To find out what small talk is and why it is important, check out this article that I wrote last week.

 

Why non-native speakers struggle to fit in

A big reason why non-natives don’t fit in with native English speakers is because they don’t make small talk and casual conversation with native speakers that they meet.

Let me guess.  You can probably write an essay or give a speech on a complex topic like Global Warming but you probably struggle with small talk and spontaneous conversation in English.

Don’t worry! It’s not your fault. It’s because small talk is not a skill that is taught in English class at school. In English class you usually focus on vocabulary, verb conjugations but not spontaneous conversation!

Small talk in English is challenging even for native speakers, so I can imagine how challenging it would be for you, a non-native English speaker. Don’t worry though. That’s where I come in. I want to help you fit in with your native English-speaking friends and colleagues.

 

Does small talk really help you to fit in with native speakers?

Maybe you’re thinking “Small talk might be important but does it really make a difference?”

If that’s what you’re thinking, don’t take my word for it. Instead, read what these three non-native English speakers who lived in English-speaking countries had to say regarding small talk and fitting in with native English speakers.

 

Reine dominique is a native French speaker who worked in Miami, USA as a Mechanical Engineer Assistant for 3 months in 2013. 

“Small talk is the key…For example, it helps you to introduce yourself, understand when someone is asking you something in the street or simply make friends. I truly recommend that people who are going to live in an English speaking country, learn the art of making small talk …To make friends, it is important to get what they say (It’s quite embarrassing when everybody is laughing and you didn’t even know that it was a joke or a funny English expression)”.

Click here to read Reine dominique's interview! +

Leandra: Could you tell me a bit about your situation living abroad in an English-speaking country?

Reine: In 2013, I wanted to live a summer based on work, linguistic but also cultural experience in the United States. The ISC (International Student Company) guided me to choose the state, which suited me, but also the domain, which corresponded the best to my studies. In May 2013, my American adventure was about to start. I had to work for 3 months as a Mechanical Engineer Assistant. I was working close to the Miami International Airport but my apartment was located in South Beach.

Leandra: Was settling in easy?       

Reine: To obtain my internship, I passed by an employment agency named ISC (International Student Company). Leslie (The CEO) guided me from the researches for the internship to the move to Miami. So, I didn’t have any difficulty to adapt myself. Only the language was an obstacle at the beginning. I live in France and generally speaking, we do not speak to strangers. Here, strangers are very spontaneous. For example: In Miami, if they like you dress, they would stop to tell you that.

Leandra: How was your English? Did you have any challenges conversing with native speakers?

Reine: My studies always were in French. I had two hours of English a week during my studies but I quickly realized in the United States that it was not enough because they teach us everything except what I qualify as “everyday English. I didn’t even know how to order shrimps at the restaurant or find something at the grocery store (because I didn’t know the name in English). Obviously, I was ashamed to tell people, I had learnt English for 10 years. (A joke right? 🙂 )

Leandra: How did you find making small talk with native speakers?

Reine: I was very lucky because my colleagues were patient. They always tried to repeat, to spell all the words that I did not understand. The engineer in charge of me had a good method: he wrote all that I did not understand until I got what he wanted me to do. I then realized: my written English was much better than my Oral English.

The American accent is complicated because they teach us British English in France. I lived in South Beach in a residence full of foreign students. It was a way for me to practice my fluent English and not to be afraid of making errors while speaking. I didn’t have enough vocabulary but I remember that after every conversation I learnt at least 10 words or expressions.

Leandra: How important would you say small talk is? Did it make a difference in your experience of fitting in with natives?

Reine: Small talk is the key. You cannot intend on moving to an English speaking country without a lot of practice (My experience shows it). For example, it helps you to introduce yourself, understand when someone is asking you something in the street or simply make friends.

I truly recommend that people, who are going to live in an English speaking country, learn the art of making small talk. First reason: If you’re doing an internship, you have to be able to understand what they want you to do or fix. Second reason: To make friends, it is important to get what they say (It’s quite embarrassing when everybody is laughing and you didn’t even know that it was a joke or a funny English expression)

Leandra: Do you have any funny stories to tell? (Eg. About an embarrassing misunderstanding or cultural faux pas?)

Reine: I remember the first day I went to the beach with my neighbor. He was telling me a story about his ex-girlfriend and I didn’t get the half of it. At the end, he told me: “To put it in a nutshell…” I was like: “Nutshell? To put what?” He went like: “your reaction is weird.”

Me: "Weird?? What does that mean??” (I promise you, with the accent, I couldn’t guess until he said: bizarre as a synonym). It’s a typical example of how you can get lost in a conversation with a quarter of sentence.

Leandra: How would you sum up the overall experience of your time abroad?

Reine: I am part of the ones who think that when you start travelling you cannot stop. My experience was the occasion to learn another culture and particularly another language.  My piece of advice: If you plan to spend more than a few days abroad, you need to prepare yourself in advance in order to be able to express yourself properly regarding simple things like public transportation, accommodation…

 

Laura is a native French speaker who worked as a language assistant at two high schools for about 8 months in Lake District, England in 2007. 

“Small talk was one of the biggest challenges in my everyday life. It may sound strange but I could debate with a colleague about cultural aspects but couldn’t be as spontaneous as I wanted to be in small talk conversations in the morning or at the end of the day! Small talk isn’t something you’re taught at school!

Mastering small talk is very useful to fit in. I think it’s one of the first things you have to master if you want to fit in and get on well with the people you meet or work with.

I can really identify with people who say they’ve felt very uncomfortable or embarrassed when they talked with a native and were not as spontaneous as they wanted to be. “Awkward” is the word which immediately comes to mind!”

Click here to read Laura's interview! +

Leandra: Could you tell me a bit about your situation living abroad in an English-speaking country?

Laura: I lived in England for about 8 months in 2007. I lived in the Lake District and worked in two high schools, teaching French to students aged 8 to 18. I worked as a language assistant to help English students improve their French.

Leandra: Was settling in easy?

Laura: Settling in wasn’t that easy. Nothing had been done to make my stay easier so in the first two months I had to juggle work and administrative tasks (opening a bank account, finding a place to live and so on)

Leandra: How was your English? Did you have any challenges conversing with native speakers?

Laura: I guess I was very good at writing and understanding English but speaking English was still very stressful, especially with natives.

Leandra: How did you find making small talk with native speakers?

Laura: Small talk was one of the biggest challenges in my everyday life. It may sound strange but I could debate with a colleague about cultural aspects but couldn’t be as spontaneous as I wanted to be in small talk conversations in the morning or at the end of the day! Small talk isn’t something you’re taught at school!

Leandra: How important would you say small talk is? Did it make a difference in your experience of fitting in with natives?

Laura: Mastering small talk is very useful to fit in. I think it’s one of the first things you have to master if you want to fit in and get on well with the people you meet or work with.

Leandra: Do you have any funny stories to tell? (Eg. About an embarrassing misunderstanding or cultural faux pas?)

Laura: Sorry, I don’t have anything funny or juicy to tell but I can really identify with people who say they’ve felt very uncomfortable or embarrassed when they talked with a native and were not as spontaneous as they wanted to be. “Awkward” is the word which immediately comes to mind!

Leandra: How would you sum up the overall experience of your time abroad?

Laura: It may sound a bit cliché but living abroad is really rewarding. It helped me grow (at all levels). It helps you be more open-minded, meet a lot very different people, and being immersed in another culture is way more rewarding than just learning a language at school. It’s definitely an experience I would recommend to anyone, whatever their level in English.

Leandra: Do you have any parting comments or advice for those looking to live in an English speaking country?

Laura: I can’t think of anything else to add except for the fact that people who have lived abroad tend to miss this period. I guess I do miss living in England and I’m always very happy to go back there from time to time!

 

Elena Mutonono (www.elenamutonono.com) is a native Russian speaker originally from Ukraine. Read what she had to say about small talk:

“Just in case you didn’t know that, small talk is very important in English. In fact, if you start your business meeting with business from the second you walk through the door people might think you’re too militant and even rude. And I’m not even talking about casual conversation.

Small talk isn’t as popular in Ukraine, where I’m from, so I had a slight culture shock when I first came to the US, and people talked to me on the street. My reaction was 1) I couldn’t understand their English (because they spoke a bit faster than what I was used to); 2) I didn’t know what to say because in my culture you just don’t talk to strangers; 3) I made both the person talking to me and myself look extremely stupid. 

So if you don’t want to be like me (please don’t) when you first come to the US or the UK, please read this post by Leandra.”

 

You have heard it directly from non-native speakers. In all 3 examples, they showed how making small talk helps you to fit in with native English speakers.

Imagine this: You’ll no longer feel like an outsider. You’ll finally fit in! You’ll feel accepted! You’ll feel confident!

 

What to do about it?

My aim is to help you master small talk and spontaneous conversations. One of the first steps to mastering small talk is starting conversations. In Lesson 1 of my email course, you’ll get a cheat sheet with 7 common topics and 14 questions or statements that you can use to easily start conversations with native English speakers.

When you join my email list, you’ll continue to get more tips on making small talk and spontaneous conversation to help you socialise in English. To sign up for my free guide and email course (and get the conversation starters cheat sheet), click on the image below.

 

Key Take-away

Understanding English culture is very important if you want to fit in with native speakers, especially mastering the art of small talk.

 

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