Saturday, January 28, 2012

Small Talk

thanks to bentza
 My intermediate group has been looking at the virtues of small talk recently.  This came about because we had some new members join the group and, as always, we spent a little bit of time sharing information about ourselves.

We explored situations when small talk is appropriate (or expected), polite topics and topics to be careful with, and some techniques for keeping a conversation going. Since we all live in the US, the focus was on American customs and expectations.

Some notes:

- Small talk is appropriate when you find yourself in the company of someone you don't know (or don't know very well).  It's expected if you find yourself in the company of this person for an unexpectedly long time.  The purpose of small talk isn't to convey information but to acknowledge and accept the other person as a member of your immediate community.

 - There are countless polite topics.  The main thing is that they should not be too personal or controversial.  In the US, it's not polite to ask someone directly about their weight, their salary, their romantic status, or how much a possession costs.

- Some techniques for keeping a conversation going include "answer and ask" -- don't just answer a question but ask one in return, ask open-ended questions, add a bit of extra information when answering a yes/no question, and repeat a key word in a questioning tone (another way to ask for more information).

We didn't discuss how small talk differs from country to country, but that has potential too.  It may go well with a discussion about body language.

Students had a homework assignment: think of a situation in your life when small talk might be necessary and write a dialog of 6-10 sentences, using at least one technique for keeping a conversation going.

When students came in the next time, I wrote three questions on the board:
Where are they?
Is the topic OK?
What techniques did you hear?

Each student chose a dialog partner, left the room to practice and then came back to perform.  The remaining students listened for the answers to the questions and we discussed after each demonstration. It was excellent!  One dialog involved waiting for an elevator and talking about sports.  Another, from a student who fishes as a hobby, was small talk with a nearby fisherman.  One scene was at a bus stop and the small talker complimented the other person's boots.  Another scene featured a chance encounter with a friend at the grocery store.  Not only were these scenes creative and personalized to the students who wrote them, but they stimulated new questions:  How long should a small talk conversation go on?  How do you stop the conversation when you're finished?  What can you say if you don't really want to talk?

Do you have ideas about the answers to these questions?

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