I’m not good at small talk, although I’ve been learning foreign languages for years and always remind my students to be willing to begin small talk with foreigners.
For some people, small talk is easy and it hardly varies from one situation to another. Just say “Hello” and “How are you doing?”, and “good”, “good”, “it’s a nice day”, “have a good day”. That’s it. Whether your are in a hurry or available for a long discussion, the small talk is definitely necessary, especially when it helps to build up or maintain your positive image.
As many of my students, I sometimes feel embarrassed to answer others’ question with inaccurate information. When I am in a bad mood, even in a very horrible situation, I still tend to say “good” with a big smile to end the small talk, because I’m not sure if the greeting is just a polite routine or an expression of the person’s real concern. Maybe he has no time to listen to my problems. Maybe my unexpected answer would bring our normal greeting to an endless conversation. Imagine that we stand there, on the street, more than three minutes, both tired and frustrating. The more terrible is that when the conversation begins, we don’t know how to end it.
Last evening, when I got out of the car with Claire and my husband, we encountered one of our neighbors, who was walking her dog. We don’t know her much but always exchange smiles and greetings. However, each time, I felt a little short of words. One time, she asked us whether we had settled down. Since it has been eight months we are here, the question appeared a little strange. “Of course!” was really a bad reply but we had no time to rescind it. In small talk, when you are not ready to answer a detail question, it’s easy to make mistake.
“Have you had your dinner?” I added a question that popped out of my mouth without any further consideration. She was surprised and then nodded her head with a “Yes!” Believing that my Chinese culture would unconsciously drive me to silly behaviors, my husband made fun of me. In China, people always greet somebody in the street by asking if he has already had meals. I don’t know the reason of such a greeting expression, but for most cases, it doesn’t mean that the person is really talking about food. Even your answer is “no”, he would not invite you to eat something together. That is really a culture difference.
However, last evening, I wasn’t totally obsessed with the greeting formulation. I was just holding our pizza and had no idea of what to say. I supposed that she had noticed the pizza and the conversation would be normally turn to the food. I might expect that she would say “have a good dinner” at first, then I could follow by uttering my stupide and rude question.
Whatever, I’m now considering to “save my face”-which is another culture issue, by explaining to her that my “dinner” question was simply a Chinese greeting.