Language Blog

The Importance of Small Talk

Communicating in American English in workplace-related subjects, while challenging, can be accomplished with practice and effort by immigrants working in a corporate or medical business environment. Carrying on ‘’small talk’’ is something quite different. Casual and unscripted conversation with native speakers of American English is an essential component of language development and social integration. Social conversation is especially difficult for Chinese immigrants. A new study, by Research on Public Policy in Canada has found that Mandarin speaking immigrants had made little or no significant progress in their clarity of speech, fluency, and intelligibility after seven years in an English-speaking environment. Researchers also found that the Mandarin speakers in their study had significantly fewer conversations of significant duration with native and non-native speakers of English than did their counterparts from other language backgrounds. There are many possible reasons for this gap in communication. Mainland Chinese learn English from textbooks through reading and writing with no opportunity to work on listening and speaking skills. As an American high school student, I learned French in this manner, with 90% of classroom instruction as grammar and translation. To this day, I am unable to comfortably conduct a conversation in French, although I can read it and write it fluently. If people are uncomfortable with being able to speak and comprehend English well, they will feel discouraged or afraid about participating in a conversation because they are afraid that others don’t understand them. Better to keep their dignity….and their silence. Additionally, silence is considered by the Chinese to be a virtue reflecting humility. Unfortunately for them, in the West, people tend to expect and appreciate participation and speaking out, so their silence or discomfort is not received well by colleagues or supervisors. To a greater or lesser extent, the experiences of other immigrant groups can mirror the challenges faced by the Chinese and the American workplace suffers from the lack of small talk and camaraderie between native and foreign-born speakers of English. A focus on listening, speaking, and pronunciation in workplace language training is a good way to break down these fears. Providing a ‘’safe place’’ at work with an instructor who is not a co-worker who might judge them negatively can be a powerful help to immigrants who speak English only during the day for business and resume use of their native language when they return home at the end of the day. To foster the soft skill of engaging in casual conversation, break room or cafeteria tables can be set aside in gathering places as “English Only” tables. This can serve both to encourage the immigrants to speak socially to one another in the common language of English as well as to invite native-English speaking co-workers who wish to interact more with those whose native language is not English. Common gathering rooms can become more ‘’mosaics’’ than “silos” of various language groups. Communication is a two-way street. The burden of communication should not rest solely on the shoulders of the non-native speaker. Native speakers should not “zone out” or shut down when they are communicating with someone who speaks with an accent, but seek more sensitive interaction. Creating a relationship’ with a sensitive, trusted native speaker will go a long way towards helping the skilled foreign-born worker overcome his conversational and listening challenges

Upspeak is Not Speaking Up

Upspeak is NOT Speaking Up Upspeak ( Uptalk) had its beginning in the era of the Valley Girl in California. It has since spread its tentacles across the years to wrap around the speaking habits of both women and men of all ages. Why is this phenomenon significant? Because Upspeakers unknowingly compromise the quality of the competent, knowledgeable leadership image that they want to project.

Columnist Hank Davis writes, in The Uptalk Epidemic,

“It’s a nasty habit. It is the very opposite of confidence or assertiveness. It’s gotten all out of control. These days, even statements about which there should be no question or doubt are presented in this tentative, timid and deferential manner.”

When statements and assertions sound like questions, your credibility and competence can be doubted. When you give advice or offer an educated assessment of a set of facts, the perception of your expertise gets chipped away when you sound like you are asking a question. Would you want to be represented by or rely on the advice someone who sounds unsure and tentative? Tentative is the dark side of Confident. Your voice should reflect everything you want your listener to believe about you. You have substance. You are in control. You are knowledgeable. You have the answer….not that you are unsure of yourself and are seeking validation.

In less than a second, the time it takes to say “hello,” we make a snap judgment about someone’s personality, says Jody Kreiman, a UCLA researcher who studies how we perceive voice. On hearing just a brief utterance, we decide whether to approach the person or to avoid them. I would add that in that same split second, we decide if that person has “gravitas” and has the expertise to solve our problem, address our concerns, represent our interests.

I’ve personally witnessed Upspeak at the highest levels of Fortune 100 companies, and I’ve heard it used as a reason to deny a promotion or discredit an idea. A wise career move is to take the time to analyze your own speaking patterns and snuff out Upspeak. Record yourself in a variety of speaking situations and LISTEN objectively. Become your own audience. Elicit feedback from a trusted friend or colleague. To be perceived as a leader and person of substance, you must not only LOOK like a leader with a polished physical image, you must also SOUND like a leader with a polished Vocal Image.

Behaviors and Business Etiquette to discuss with Accent Students in the Workplace

One thing that comes to mind is not letting a speaker know that you are listening. We do this with words, sounds, and phrases like ah huh, yeah, I know what mean, of course, right, oh definitely, for sure, I hear you, absolutely.

This is something one of my clients asked me to talk about with his employees: let people know you are listening.

And on the phone, when a customer stops talking, the customer usually expects you to, then, say something. Silence, or “dead air” is unsettling. It makes one wonder if anyone is listening. A direct question is not the only way we indicate that we now expect the listener to say something. Not observing turn-taking cues could go on the list.

1) Not observing turn-taking cues – allowing there to be silence or “dead air”
2) Not acknowledging that one is listening
3) Saying “yes” when one really means “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”.
4) Unknowingly taking a tone that sounds to direct and bold
5) Seeming impersonal or unfriendly when one might really be shy and not know what to say
6) Only saying what is necessary and getting straight to the matter at hand without any of the usual small talk – seeming to be in too much of a hurry to move on – impersonal(Another consultant made note of this when speaking of a client we both have.)

American Television Can Help Improve Language Skills

While traveling in Europe, I couldn’t help noticing how many people are comfortable and fluent in American English.  Upon further investigation, I learned that a most have acquired English fluency through watching American sitcoms and movies and picking up the ‘’flow’’ of casual conversation.  To improve your fluency and comprehension of any language, take advantage of your tv.  For casual conversation, watching sitcoms is great, but when you really want to polish your business and professional English for a greater career advantage,  tune in to your local news broadcasts.  American broadcasters are ‘’the people from nowhere’’ with no recognizable accent of any kind.  Their grammar, diction, and presentation skills are excellent models for those seeking to improve their fluency and comfort with American English.  Watch for speech patterns, intonations, and body language as well as for vocabulary and grammar and you will quickly improve the quality of your spoken communication. As a bonus, you will also be able to model the correct pronunciation of many local place names, which are only known by the locals.  An example?  NEWark in New Jersey but newARK in Delaware.