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.