The #1 challenge that I hear from Chinese students and professionals abroad is the loneliness that comes from having trouble making small talk with their surrounding 老外 (“laowai” – Americans). My heart always breaks when I hear this, because I remember the pain and isolation of my own struggle growing up in America.
In thinking about my Chinese friends, I’m reminded of the acclaimed novel The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. The protagonist, Stevens, aims to be the perfect British butler to a carefree American master. His style is formal and courteous, like that of many Chinese. As an outsider, he tends to overthink the few interactions that he does have with the people in his world. His speech is limited to the necessary, practical requests made of him by his employer, and he gets horribly confused whenever attempting to discuss human emotions or to joke ironically. In his imposed silence, he stands at a distance as his employer hosts dinner parties. He says to himself:
It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly. It is possible these particular persons are simply united by the anticipation of the evening ahead. But, then, I rather fancy it has more to do with this skill of bantering.
This novel was published in 1989, when I was away at college at Duke. Like Stevens, I recognized that “in banter lies the key to human warmth,” and yet like him, while growing up, my own skills at bantering were woeful. When with my American friends, I would always rush to come up with a joke or ironic remark to contribute. Problem is, often my joke was slightly off, and on the rare occasions that I had the right thing to say, it always seemed to be 60 seconds too late.
As the novel concludes, it appears that Stevens’s ability to develop deeper ties to those around him will be forever inhibited by his lack of self-awareness and empathy. But he does make the first step by resolving to try to deepen his interactions with others.
And that’s a first step that you need to take if you are to learn to make small talk with老外. Step outside of your comfort zone of socializing only with Chinese, and proactively take these steps:
- Become a T-Shape Thinker. To speak fluently on many different subjects, become a voracious student of the world and people around you. To become an agile thinker and conversationalist, you need to broaden your knowledge. I blogged on how to do this here.
- Ask cultural questions. I think you’ll find that people are very receptive to your questions about cultural references. People know that English is not your first language, and most are happy to help. Forget about forcing yourself to come up with the jokes and instead simply ask about what you don’t understand. This is easier to do one-on-one than in a large group.
- Ask personal questions. When you meet someone new, try to focus 80% of the conversation on her rather than yourself. When you approach someone at a party, you can break the ice by asking how she knows the host. If at a professional networking event, ask how she chose her profession. The goal is to get her telling her story. You’ll find that everyone is interesting, everyone has a story — and everyone likes talking about themselves!
So, the next time you are around老外, take the pressure off of yourself to perform. Imagine yourself as a journalist, or anthropologist, or a headhunter like me. Your job is to observe closely and to learn about the people around you, so that you can learn to best shape your manner to relate to them.
Questions lead to small talk, small talk leads to bantering, and in banter lies the key to human warmth. I hope and expect that you’ll find with practice, the process will become more comfortable and, over time, even enjoyable.
I welcome your comments, in English or Chinese, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.