October 15, 2015

Conversation Starters in Different Parts of the US

While there are some conversation starters and acceptable small talk topics that span communities in the US, there are certainly regional variations. These variations depend on the community, the area, and the person. 


A few examples of the conversational openers that are generally acceptable, have regional and personal variations. Two examples were shared in a recent podcast on this topic by renowned linguistics professor at Pitzer College, Carmen Fought. 

Where are you from? 
While many people are comfortable with this question, a caller to the podcast did mention that he hates this question. Generally, they may answer this question based on where they currently live or where they were born. It's really up to them. 

The podcast listed a few regional variations of this question: 

  • What part of XYZ city are you from? (What part of New York City are you from?) 
  • Did you grow up around here? 
  • What [high] school did you go to?
  • What exit are you from? 
  • Who's your momma?  
One question that may follow or be related to this question is, "What are you?" or "Where are you from originally?" or "What ethnicity are you?". While there were people in the podcast who were completely fine being asked this question, one was not at all happy with this question. I have seen this question being the most problematic when asked by a "White American" to Asians (such as Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, etc.) who have grown up in the US and even those who have become citizens later in life. They may interpret the question as, "So, because I don't look like you, I can't be from the US? I can't be American?" However, if this question is asked by someone from the same ethnicity, it may be more acceptable. From my personal experience, when I have asked this question to Indians, Chinese and Japanese people in the US, I have landed in hot water. Hence, I have avoided this question or I am not the first to broach this topic. 

What do you do? 

While most American do not mind talking about their job, there are some who may find this question uncomfortable to answer if they have been recently laid off. The podcast shares how some conversational openers change based on cultural and economic changes faced in the country. 

The acceptability of questions also is dependent on the scenario in which we are in. 
  1. Professional Networking Event/Client Visit 
    Asking someone about their job is acceptable in this scenario
    . In fact, we could go into more detail at work, especially if we are working with the person.
  2. Studying in a College/University
    Asking someone, "What is your major?" is the most comparable question to "What do you do?" This question is safe for studying in college at any age, as now a days college students range in age from 18 to 80! 
  3. Meeting a Stranger on the Street Without a context to the relationship, it's better to stick to neutral topics like the weatherrestaurants to eat at, directions, etc. 
Author of this post, Jennifer Kumar, offers fun, interactive trainings to Indians working with Americans on how to have conversations with Americans at work. In the training, we look at conversation starters, small talk topics and questions, and how to end a conversation. These training topics can be paired with meeting etiquettes for a full day session culminating in a role play mock client call with live feedback from an American trainer. Contact Jennifer for more details.



Related Posts:  
60 Ways to Start a Conversation about Halloween
Can you understand different American accents?

Making small talk with Americans easy  
Dos and Don'ts for Small Talk 
When Americans Speak Fast - Tips to Understand    

Networked blogs link: http://networkedblogs.com/VQMjG

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