Illustration by Daniel Rey

The Art of Anglophone Small Talk

There tend to be cultural differences when it comes to the degree to which people employ small talk in their daily interactions.

Nov 26, 2016

As topics for small talk, the weather, your real or fake state of being and how your classes are going are all up for grabs. Recently, The Gazelle published an article about the superficial interactions that often result from small talk. In some cases, small talk almost becomes a chore that one must complete and once that box has been ticked, the words spoken are rarely remembered. There is no doubt that the culture of small talk is alive and well on Saadiyat; however, there tend to be cultural differences when it comes to the degree to which people employ small talk in their daily interactions. This suggests that although some cultures may view small talk as a waste of words, others view it is a social necessity and appreciate it more because of its perceived benefits.
Anglophone countries, such as the U.S. and the U.K., are among those that have the greatest levels of small talk. This may come as no surprise considering that these countries ranked first and fifth respectively on a study by OECD Communications, analyzing the amount of time people in different countries spent talking on a mobile phone. This is an indicator of how talkative people are and can predict whether or not they are more likely to engage in small talk.
Part of the reason why small talk may prevail in the U.S. is that it is seen as the polite thing to do. Standing near someone or around someone without speaking may be taken as a sign of ignoring the other person. An Indian writer for The New Yorker experienced shock when he was called rude after failing to engage in small talk with the waiter serving him in the restaurant. He was shocked by the accusation, as he did not understand the social nuances that came with U.S. American small talk. To him, small talk was an unnecessary filler and an inefficient way to deal with social interactions.
Another reason why U.S. Americans may be the number one drivers of small talk is because they consider it as extremely valuable in the workplace. Being able to engage in small talk is associated with extraversion and building beneficial connections. Small talk can be a performance where a person emphasizes their strengths and potentially gains privileged inside information by feigning interest in powerful persons’ opinions on trivial events. As the Harvard Business Review notes, “there’s nothing small about the role small talk plays in American professional culture.” So perhaps the tendency for Americans to engage in small talk has to do with the fact that they are viewing it as a strategy to climb the corporate and social ladder.
The British also compete closely with U.S. Americans when it comes to small talk. The main topic of conversation tends to be the weather, which is puzzling as the weather in the U.K. is mostly described as cold, rainy and grey. A journalist for BBC News has investigated the weather small talk phenomenon and has come to the conclusion that in some ways, this behavior is actually a code that allows people to assess the other person’s mood. They are then able to determine whether or not further conversation will be fruitful. However, unlike U.S. American small talk, British small talk tends to be mostly with acquaintances or friends, and very rarely with strangers on the street. Attempting to engage in small talk on the streets of London may result in someone silently judging your overt friendliness.
Although Anglophone countries have been given a reputation of engaging in excessive small talk, they may not actually be the champions of this cultural phenomenon. In some cultures, small talk exists, even if it may not have the label that it does in English. For example, in many southern African countries, it is common to engage in a sizeable amount of small talk before discussing the matters that are the target of the meeting. The small talk can include the weather, like in Britain, but more often, it expands to include more personal topics such as age, profession and family life. This information is not considered inconsequential, as small talk often is; rather, it provides a background about the person. It still resembles small talk because these interactions are usually not the main goal of the conversation and are also often used to fill awkward silences. In these countries, however, the line between small talk and meaningful conversation is much less obvious when compared to the U.K. and the U.S.
Small talk is an Anglophone term and as such, is recognized more readily in Anglophone countries compared to non-Anglophone nations. The reasons why people in Anglophone countries engage in small talk may be heavily centered around how strategic its use can be when it comes to fostering the right connections for success. Therefore, in countries such as the U.S. where networking is becoming increasingly important, it makes sense that small talk is a more frequent phenomenon. As its usefulness and use expands, perhaps there will be a term for small talk which expands beyond its current English-centric nature.
Vongai Mlambo is a staff writer. Email her at
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