2/3 Fly-on-the-Wall Observation

Ashlesha and I attended the ‘Small Talk’ seminar hosted by ICC. The purpose of this seminar is to help international students understand the importance of small talks and facilitate those conversation in the real world.

We pretended to be participants and observed other students. Each attendee came from various countries including China, Indonesia and Rwanda. Though most students have fairly advanced English proficiency, they are not familiar with the American culture yet, especially when it comes to having a conversation with American people.

The instructor, Rebecca, asked us a question about the challenges in making small talks in the States. The most common answers we heard is that:

  • Choosing the good topics
  • Initiate/maintain/finish the talk
  • Changing the topic
  • Making jokes

Indeed, having small talks is the most unique culture in America. Especially, students from East Asian cultures are not familiar with chatting with strangers because they rarely talk with people they don’t know.

We learned the interesting social background about why ‘small talk’ culture is developed in the States; unlike other traditional countries, the US is the country built by immigrants from all over the world. That is, each individual don’t share the commonalities. Since it is hard to feel similarities between community members, people used small talks to lower emotional barriers and build relationship with those from different background.

Ash is practicing small talks with Rebecca, the instructor

A-ha! Her explanation totally struck my mind. That means the history of a nation affects everyday social interaction. Without understanding it, it would be hard to have empathy in building relationship. Then how might we give these background information to language learners in a real situation? This is definitely the most important question we need to consider.

During the class, Ashlesha practiced small talks with Rebecca. (She was really good at continuing the conversation.) Rebecca gave us some tips for gaining more confidence in small talks. I think the most useful tip would be “Use what you already know to find out what you don’t know.” — Starting from the common sense (ex. today’s weather), we can draw new information from the counterpart (ex. when does the Steelers play games).

The observation was very useful and gave us a lot of insights. Social interaction is the one that traditional textbooks and translators can’t teach to learners. In addition, it is very awkward to try it at the beginning. To get used to it, however, they need to start speaking with local people. Our solution has to focus on overcoming awkward moments.

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