Today, a friend and I began leading an informal English conversation group for parents at a local elementary school. Most participants spoke Japanese as their first language and most had a similar level of fluency, that is, they could use complete sentences, though some knew more complex grammar and had larger vocabularies than others.
I found that thinking of conversation topics that would excite the “students'” interest and trigger a conversation lasting for at least 45 minutes created more of a challenge than working with different levels of English proficiency. A Japanese friend who recruited the parents said she believed they wanted to talk about their kids’ schools, the curriculum, and report cards, so we prepared one broad question to start that conversation.
After the parents responded well to a warm-up question — If someone gave you $1,000 just for you, what would you buy and where would you buy it? — we divided them into small groups. Each facilitator asked the big question: Tell us about your children’s school experiences. Are there things you’d like to know more about, things you have questions or concerns about? This question was either too big, too open-ended, or too irrelevant for my group. They all gave it their best shot, but the conversation quickly ran dry. Guess what they really wanted to talk about? “When I see the mother of my child’s friend, after I say hello and ask her how she is, what do I say next?”
Is “small talk” different in every culture? Small talk is an art and some of us are better at it than others. Knowing English well makes it easier, but there is no formula that works for everyone. I’m certainly no expert on this topic. I can recommend that the parents ask questions, but if they know little about the person to whom they’re speaking, they will struggle to know which questions to ask. At the very least I should warn them about which questions not to ask. I still remember visiting a Mexican friend who hadn’t seen me for a year who asked, “Haven’t you gotten fatter since I last saw you?” That wasn’t my idea of small talk.
Interesting dilema. Maybe next time they could discuss what TV shows they watch or something trivial. I would think they would droned on endlessly about thier children. Hopefully they will be more comfortable next time, maybe they were just shy?
The worst statement ever made to me by one of my friends husbands, in an effort to make small talk was… “My, you have a lot of wrinkles.” My answer was to walk away and I didn’t speak to him for months after that.
OMG! I can’t believe anyone would say that.
This is really important — not trivial. Helping these parents cross the cultural lines and carry on decent conversations is important to their feeling comfortable in their new community. Of course it would also be good if some of the rest of us were capable of contributing to good conversations.
Did the group arrive at any ideas about what to say after they say hello?
No. I guess that’s what the facilitators will have to come up with.