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At my last job as a junior high English teacher here in Mexico, I always felt just a little bit nervous arriving at school.
I felt nervous because even though I'm pretty fluent in Spanish, I wanted to be professional and not make mistakes in Spanish while having simple conversations with the other teachers and the school director.
I also knew that it was important for my working relationships that I be able to make casual, friendly small talk with my co-workers. But even though I'm fluent in Spanish, I didn’t grow up in this culture. So another thing I would worry about was whether or not I was talking about an inappropriate subject (something I SHOULDN'T say).
One thing that makes small talk easier in your native language is that you pretty much know the best and most appropriate topics to talk about according to your culture.
So for Part 2 of this series on small talk, I want to share my understanding of topics and specific questions that you should AVOID while making small talk in English with Americans:
THE BIG NO-NOs - POLITICS, RELIGION & SEX
Let’s start with the big no-no topics of politics, religion and sex. In general, Americans avoid these topics to make sure the other people they're talking to don’t feel uncomfortable. We also don’t want to make someone else get angry or upset if their views are different from ours.
We also avoid these topics so that we don’t get upset ourselves if someone else doesn’t agree with us! It’s not very professional to get angry at work, so avoid these topics.
Besides, talking about sex or even making sexual jokes or little sexual comments at work can get you in big trouble in many professional situations. You can even lose your job, so better to just leave the sexual jokes for after work with your VERY close friends.
Here are some specific questions to AVOID:
POLITICAL, RELIGIOUS AND SEX-RELATED QUESTIONS TO AVOID
Who are you voting for?
I’m more conservative. Why are you a democrat?
The President is an idiot, isn’t he?
The Pope is making horrible decisions recently. You’re not Catholic, are you?
Do you know if Tim and Alicia have sex together?
Did you have sex with that woman?
OTHER TOPICS TO AVOID - ANYTHING TOO PERSONAL
After the big no-no topics of politics, religion and sex, make sure to avoid any topics that Americans consider too personal. Americans definitely tend to avoid asking and talking about age and appearance.
Arlin Cuncic, a social anxiety expert, writes the following in her article 10 Topics to Avoid When Making Small Talk:
“If you have just met someone, do not ask her age...In addition, avoid questions related to appearance. Do not ask a woman if she is pregnant, or comment that someone has lost weight.”
Americans also avoid asking others about these topics: illness and disease, relationship status and past romantic relationships, having children and certain family topics. And don’t forget money. Americans definitely avoid talking about money.
Wow! That’s a lot to think about and avoid! To get an idea about what not to say, I have listed some questions that Americans consider too personal, especially for the workplace.
PERSONAL QUESTIONS TO AVOID:
(Age & Appearance)
How old are you?
Wow, you’ve gained weight. Why are you fatter now?
You’ve gotten so skinny!
Wow, that’s a big rash on your face. What happened?
Why were sick yesterday?
I had really bad diarrhea this morning.
I heard you broke up with your boyfriend. Why did that happen?
Are you married?
Why are you single?
When are you going to get married to your girlfriend?
When are you going to have children?
Do you talk with your parents?
How much money do you make?
I heard you got a raise. How much more are you making now?
Whew!! Even writing those questions down is making me feel uncomfortable. As an American, I just don’t like to share that kind of personal information with anyone outside of my close family or maybe with very close friends. And to stay professional at work, I avoid asking about and talking about these topics.
DON'T TALK ABOUT THESE TOPICS UNLESS...
Some exceptions to avoiding these topics include if the other person starts talking about their spouse, their kids, or their health. If the other person bring up any of these subjects FIRST, you can ask simple questions. But it is always best to let the other person tell you about more personal facts before asking.
Another exception is with age. If you meet someone, and THEY start talking about their children FIRST, you can ask how old their kids are. If a child or adolescent looks older than about 20 years old, it's best not to ask.
Next week I’ll follow up this series with an article about more topics you CAN talk about and how to keep a conversation going.
How do you feel about personal topics and small talk? What personal topics are YOU uncomfortable talking about?
Learn to speak real, conversational American English with Sabrina, an American English teacher.
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