Small Talk in China and USA or “When Will Anyone Ask Me If I Gained Weight?”

chinese small talk

Hey there! I’m Wang Shu Huang, a recent graduate, and assistant in the admissions center of my university. As a quite sociable individual, I love making small talk. When I came to the USA six years ago, small talk being a part of the daily routine here surprised me. Yet, I saw some differences between China and America, and I’d love to share my thoughts with you in this article.

NB: Small talk is an informal type of communication that does not cover any functional topics or solve any issues. In other words, it’s a short and polite conversation about unimportant things.

Small talk was first studied by Bronisław Malinowski in 1923.

Similarities in Small Talk: Discovering Common Ground Through Casual Conversations

When it comes to striking up a small talk conversation, I’ve discovered that it can be a real game-changer. And you know what? It doesn’t have to be complicated at all! In fact, the simplest topics can often be the best icebreakers.

  • Let’s start with the weather. I mean, come on, who doesn’t have something to say about that? Whether it’s a scorching summer day or a cozy rainy afternoon, talking about the weather is something we can all relate to. It’s like a universal language that instantly puts everyone at ease.
  • Oh, and how about the event or place you’re in? That’s another fantastic way to get the ball rolling. Whether you’re at a party, a conference, or just hanging out at a coffee shop, mentioning something about the surroundings can spark interesting conversations. It’s like saying, “Hey, we’re here together. Let’s dive into this moment and enjoy it!”
  • Now, let’s talk about something that brings people together across cultures: pop culture references. You know those latest movies, TV shows, and the buzz about celebrities? Well, they’re not just gossip fodder. They’re actually a fantastic way to bridge cultural gaps and create connections. Sharing opinions and excitement about what’s trending can instantly make you feel like you’re part of the same tribe.
  • Of course, we can’t forget about food! Who doesn’t love talking about their favorite dishes or exploring new culinary delights? In China, regional cuisine is a big hit when it comes to small talk, while in the USA, you can dive into exciting discussions about popular chain restaurants or local food trucks. Food truly knows no boundaries, and it can be a delightful gateway to discovering shared passions and experiences.

Lastly, let’s talk about something that’s appreciated in both Chinese and American cultures: politeness and showing genuine interest in others. In Chinese culture values, using respectful language in formal situations is highly valued, while in cultural norms in America, phrases like “please” and “thank you” are small but meaningful gestures that show you care. By embracing these shared values, we create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and welcome to engage in small talk.

American VS Chinese Culture: Navigating Cultural Nuances in Everyday Chitchat

As a Chinese guy who enjoys small talk, I have noticed differences in how Americans engage in small conversations compared to my country.

In China norms, people usually ask personal questions without hesitation, even with strangers. Like, “Hey, what’s your salary?” Or “Do you have a partner yet?” is not considered impolite as it might be in America.

Yet, in the United States, casual conversation is more likely to occur among strangers. It’s OK to strike up a conversation with the grocery store clerk or the person in line behind you at the coffee shop. But, it can be as odd or familiar in China.

But one thing is constant: food is a hot topic in both nations. In China, it’s almost the most favored subject to talk about. Americans enjoy their cuisine, too, but they might not be as passionate about it.

chinese small talk

Another thing to recognize in the Asian communication style is that people might touch you. It’s not an indication of homosexuality or anything like that, only a form to demonstrate sympathy. If you’re awkward with it, don’t be harsh – just politely attempt to get out of the way. A useful trick is to begin coughing like crazy.

Another cultural difference between US and China, which could result in cultural shock, is the use of humor. Chinese use humor only in specific situations, such as with close buddies or in a company setting to set a connection. Americans use humor more often and with a wider scope of people, especially in making small talk with strangers. Also, they use humor to break the ice and make small talk more interesting and pleasant. Yet, it’s important to mention that humor is subjective. What one person sees funny may not be the same for another individual, so it’s vital to use it and be mindful of cultural differences between Asia and USA in humor.

Taboos in Small Talk in Both Countries: Avoiding Conversation Pitfalls and Cultural Faux Pas

As someone who has worked in the admissions center at my university for years and loves small conversations, I’ve learned a thing or two about conversation taboos in both Chinese and American talks. These pitfalls can be easily avoided with a bit of knowledge and cultural awareness.

Let’s start by discussing politics and religion. No matter where you are, you should always steer clear of these two subjects while making small chats. This is crucial in China since these subjects are delicate and result in embarrassment or disagreement. Religion and politics are also prohibited in the USA since they are emotive and may change a nice talk into a heated conflict.

Another important thing to avoid in small talk is bringing up offensive topics. This could include anything from talking about someone’s weight to making jokes which is racist or sexist. It’s important to be mindful of your audience and avoid any topics for small talk that could be hurtful or offensive.

When I first arrived in the United States, engaging in small talk was one of my most memorable experiences. One of the people I talked to in the group asked about my faith. Given that this subject rarely arises in China, I felt surprised and didn’t know how to answer. Although I quickly changed the topic, it made me appreciate the importance of being aware of the cultural differences between China and US.

So there you have it, folks! The taboos of small talk in China and the USA. As a social butterfly, I’ve learned the hard way that you never bring up politics or religion in polite conversation unless you want to watch the room go silent and the conversation comes to a screeching halt.

But fear not!

As my dear old grandma used to say, “There’s always something to talk about if you’re willing to listen.”

So keep an open mind, avoid the landmines of taboo topics, and who knows? You might find yourself having a stimulating conversation about the weather, the latest TV show, or the merits of pineapple on pizza.

And remember, folks, when in doubt, just smile and nod. It works for me every time. Cheers to making the art of small talk less daunting and much more fun!

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Wang Shu Huang
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Wang Shu is a recent graduate currently living in Pennsylvania. He loved his university so much that he continued working there as an assistant in the admissions center. In his spare time, you'll find him planning his next USA discovery trip.