21G.221 | Spring 2019 | Undergraduate

Communicating in American Culture(s)

Topics to Guide Reading and Discussion

The Art of American Small Talk

Introduction: “Small talk,” informal chatting with strangers or acquaintances, can be a major source of anxiety for many, regardless of cultural background. At the same time, graceful small talk is a valuable (even necessary) skill in most Anglo-American professional contexts and can help you network to build useful relationships.

Task #1: Watch the video Get That Job: Making Small Talk. Take notes and be prepared to deliver a 90-second summary of what you learned.

Task #2: Discuss which topics below are appropriate for small talk in the USA:

  • Religion
  • Sports
  • Salary
  • Weather
  • Politics
  • TV shows/Movies
  • Marital status
  • Personal health
  • Health problems
  • Physical appearance
  • Taste in music

How can we reconcile anxiety and necessity? First, we can prepare content for the informal banter that characterizes contexts like work parties, conference events, and job interviews by activities such as

  • Reading (e.g., MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech; local, national, and world news in Anglo-American sources; local and company websites)
  • Keeping up with the local national sports scenes
  • Other?

Second, we can adopt appropriate networking behaviors for social contexts:

  • Move around and approach small groups rather than large ones
  • Introduce ourselves and remember other people’s names
  • Be sensitive to others’ verbal and physical exit cues; use our own tactfully
  • Take a sincere interest in others; find common ground
  • Listen more than we speak; listen actively
  • Ask open-ended questions and expand in your responses to others’ yes/no questions
  • Display open body language
  • Keep our tone and conversation positive; avoid the negative
  • Avoid eating and drinking too much

Task #3: Work with a partner to compose a short small talk exchange between two MIT students meeting at the ISO orientation. Try to combine statements and questions into a turn-taking exchange. The start is provided for you.

A: Hi, how are you?

B: Hi, good thanks. Happy to finally be here! Did you just arrive?

A: _____________

B: _____________

A: _____________

B: _____________

Task #4: Work with a partner to compose a short small talk exchange between an interviewer and an interviewee at the start of a job interview.

Person A: _____________

Person B: _____________

Person A: _____________

Person B: _____________

Person A: _____________

Person B: _____________

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2019