March 2014


The Importance of Small Talk

Communicating in 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 English speakers is an essential component of language development and social integration.

Social conversation may be especially difficult for Chinese immigrants. A study by the Institute for Research on Public Policy in Canada 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 speaking and comprehending English well, they will feel discouraged or afraid about participating in a conversation because they are afraid that others won’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, 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 night. To foster the soft skills 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.