Published on March 22, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:
The long haul from Singapore to New Jersey requires a layover, often in Shanghai, where on one recent pilgrimage home, an older American gentleman boarded and took the seat next to me. True to the American stereotype, he was friendly and outgoing. It wasn’t long before I learned that he had gone to China to teach and, now disillusioned, was returning home for good. His main source of consternation? A Chinese woman he had thought he was becoming romantically involved with, whom he had spent hours chatting with over dinners, who then — out of the blue — gushed that she wanted him to meet her husband. His bewilderment was still on his face. If it weren’t for in-flight entertainment, he likely would have continued to discuss his disbelief for the rest of our 15 hours in the air.
Small talk is confounding: it’s obligatory but must be casual. It’s a frivolous interaction that may or may not be the initial part of a chain reaction that leads to deeper relationships. Too shallow and the reaction is never sparked. Too deep and the conversation is damned as awkward, inappropriate. But where is the line between small talk and genuine conversation? Between friendship and romance? As my seatmate discovered, depending on where you are in the world, that line can be in unexpected places.
When living abroad, your ability at small talk needs to be rebuilt from scratch, along with your knowledge of which topics and comments qualify as casual or intimate. It’s not called an art for nothing.
For instance, in the United States, directly asking a new acquaintance how much they paid for something is akin to a needle scratch (unless you preface the statement with an apology and the excuse that you’re shopping around for the same item). In Ireland, Great Britain and Japan, it’s doubtful that even that qualifier would be enough to stymy the awkwardness. But in China, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries with large Chinese descendent populations, money isn’t tinged with the same shyness. A casual conversation on which neighborhood you live in can readily lead to the question of how much rent you pay. It’s a question I still stumble to answer gracefully.
On the other hand: while politics is considered a potentially treacherous topic in the U.S., discussions and even criticisms of the government’s actions aren’t nearly as uncomfortable as they are for Singaporeans or the Chinese. As far as I can tell though, no matter where you are in the world, sex remains squarely in the taboo category when it comes to casual conversation.
Even the eternally neutral topic of the weather can let you down. Small talk in Singapore only occasionally references it, as the equator doesn’t offer much diversity, while it’s almost the de rigeur conversation starter in the changeable climates of the U.S. and Europe. Understanding the local varieties and nuances of small talk will make adapting to life in another country smoother, but it can be a challenge to shake the conversational parameters one was raised with.
The British, Irish and Australians have a history of laughing at themselves and teasing others, even in ‘serious’ business scenarios, which can be startling for cultures who value ‘saving face’. In the USA, we view chatty sales people as slippery. We appreciate a clear demarcation between casual conversation and shop talk, that moment when we ‘get down to business’. Here’s the sales pitch, separate from us enjoying each other’s company. However, my potential clients in Singapore would be disconcerted if I implemented such an obvious tone shift; I would appear to be sweeping our budding friendship off the table to make room for money. In Chinese culture, non-business talk is integral. Without it, the growth of a business relationship can be sluggish regardless of the efficacy of the collaboration. Several corporate dinners can go by before business particulars are even mentioned.
At its core, small talk is about meeting new people and planting the seed for new relationships. The challenge is to recognize when an acquaintance or colleague has become a friend. The topics you discuss with that person may be intensely personal for you but everyday conversation fodder for them. The mistake the gentleman on my flight made wasn’t presuming romance where there was only friendship, but assuming that his style and expectations of communication were universal.