In our program, Buidling Trust and Good Relationships with US Americans, you learn the three kinds of small talk that Americans use at work. While those guidelines tend to be quite standardized across the USA, there are also regional conversation starters in the USA that may apply to professional or casual situations.
A few examples of the conversational openers that are generally acceptable, have regional and personal variations. Two examples were shared in a podcast on this topic by renowned linguistics professor at Pitzer College, Carmen Fought.
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?
- Are you from up North? (When you may be in Florida.)
In the podcast, it suggests to avoid asking the question, “What are you?” We should not assume any person is not originally from the US as the US is ethnically diverse. Some people do not like to be asked about their country of origin because it’s exhausting or because their country of origin IS the USA.
I’ve heard the questions “Are you from back East?” used to start conversations in Utah, where I am a transplant. Many ask me this when they notice I don’t have a Utah or Western US accent.
I have heard that in the Deep South people may ask each other “What church do you go to?” to find out where you are from or are currently living.
In Utah, being that it is heavily Mormon, some do start the conversation with “Are you Mormon?” or “Are you LDS?” Also in Utah, I have heard some ask each other “What high school did you go to?” or “What is your maiden name?” I found those openers very unique, especially since they were at professional mixers. These types of conversation starters are a big no-no in New York State. (Learn about the regional holiday Pioneer Day in Utah.)
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.
- 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.
- 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!
- Meeting a Stranger on the Street Without a context to the relationship, it’s better to stick to neutral topics like the weather, restaurants 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.
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