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Saturday, November 23, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Small Talk

When I was little, I never talked to anyone.

Yeah sure, if someone asked me a question, I would answer. And I talked to my family. But other than that, nope.

At school, I did everything the teachers said. And they were always telling the students to quit talking and pay attention. They never told us we were supposed to talk sometimes.

And you know how little kids are taught, "don't talk to strangers"? Well my mom made sure to never tell me "don't talk to strangers" because, you know, I already didn't talk to anyone. She knew I would "take it too literally" and then never make friends. (Which, seriously, please explain to me how I was supposed to understand "don't talk to strangers" as anything other than "don't talk to strangers"? That's not "taking it too literally," you guys.)

So anyway, the point of this little story is, I totally never got the point of "small talk." You know, when you just talk to people about little unimportant things, but not because you need information, just because... well I never understood why.

(Probably because I have Asperger's.)

But in college it was different. Every new freshman, including me, was trying to make friends. People were friendly. And I understood the purpose of small talk: to welcome a new person into the group, so they don't feel alone and awkward. Ask them questions about themself (yeah I'm an English teacher) to show you care about them.

And then once you've become friends, small talk is fun. I'm interested in my friends' lives.

So I had a lot of friends in college. That was cool.

But, you know, still a little clueless about the small talk.

Image source.

But now my whole life is small talk.

Because my whole life is language learning.

My job is teaching English to Chinese people. And at the same time, I am trying to improve my Chinese. How do you learn a language? Lots and lots of practice.

Lots and lots of small talk. Talk to everybody about anything and everything.

My school has a rule: English only. (A rule that is constantly broken, but at least the idea is there.) The students hang out between classes and chat with each other and with the teachers, sometimes in English, sometimes in Chinese. The classes are all taught in English (you know, with an occasional word translated). The "English environment" is super-important.

And perhaps my biggest goal, in every lesson, is this: Get the students to talk.

Put them in pairs, with a question to discuss. What do you like to watch on tv? What do you think the world will be like in the future? Which animal makes the best pet? How would you go about asking your boss for a raise?

It's all small talk. The information contained in their answers doesn't really matter. (It doesn't even have to be true!) What matters is that they're practicing English.

(Don't worry- I do also teach them things about grammar, pronunciation, etc. But they could learn that from a textbook. What really matters is the opportunity to practice. To make small talk.)

Same thing for me learning Chinese. I know I have improved a lot in the few months I've been here. But how? I don't really feel like I've done much studying... It's the small talk. (Plus the fact that I need to speak Chinese in order to like, buy food and stuff.)

My job is small talk. My life is small talk.

To speak a language well, you must do a lot of small talk.

And perhaps, back in school during my childhood, perhaps the purpose of that small talk was also to practice something. Practice getting along with people. Practice being a friend. Something like that.

Discussion question: What is the purpose of small talk?

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