A random thought: Small talk in China versus small talk in the UK

So,  I haven’t posted on this blog for a while. That’s because I returned to university in Birmingham this week, and met a whole lot of new people. It got me thinking about how people start a conversation in different cultures. What can you say, when you know absolutely nothing about a person? This is not a blog post, but more of a random thought.

Every so often I had a really generic conversation with someone I met in China. This is my impression of small talk from the Chinese people I met.  I’ve never been good at small talk, I guess, but it does seem to have a certain shape to it.

“你好”

  • “您好”
  • “你是哪里人?”
  • “英国人”

–          “啊!英国!英国的足球比赛很好!看足球吗?曼彻斯特!”-          “很好! 我不看足球”

  • “…”
  • “哦。在中国干什么?”
  • “学习汉语”
  • “阿!你说得很好!”
  • “谢谢”
  • 。。。

Roughly translated this means:

  • “Hello”
  • “Hello”
  • “Where do you come from?”
  • “Britain”
  • “Oh! Britain! Football! British football competitions are really good! Do you watch football? Manchester United!”
  • “They’re very good. I don’t watch football.”
  • “Oh….”
  • “…”
  • “What are you doing in China?”
  • “Studying Chinese.”
  • “Ah! Your Chinese is very good!”
  • “Thank you.”
  • “…”

Back in the UK, the conversation you have when you meet a stranger goes slightly differently. Imagine it’s the first meeting for a club of some sort, and no one really knows each other. Picture the scene. How  would the conversation go?”

  • “Hey.”
  • “Hello.”
  • “…”
  • “So what course do you study?”
  • “Maths.”
  • “…Oh. Cool.”
  • “You?”
  • “Psychology.”
  • “Oh, I know someone in Psychology! Do you know *xxx*?”
  • “No.”
  • “Oh.”
  • “…”
  • “Where are you living?”
  • “*insert halls here”
  • “Cool. Me too.”
  • “Cool.”
  • “So do you know *xxx*?”
  • “No.”
  • “Oh.”
  • “…”

People have certain questions to fill in the missing information about a person, and  the concept of small talk seems pretty similar across the cultures I’ve spent time in (which, admittedly, isn’t very many). I conclude one thing from these two very basic and essentially made up conversations.

In China, my experience of small talk was a culture of complimenting the person, and showing them you appreciate their culture. In the UK, my experience of small talk was a culture of discussing people and experiences, seeking mutual friends and hopefully finding some common ground that way.

Can small talk be a cultural statement? Does it change across cultures? Is it just me being too introspective and generalising? Why do people need to understand such basic information about a person before they get onto the real stuff, even though it probably doesn’t have any relevance to them? Thoughts?

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