Last week I had cause to reflect on the cultural sliding scale that exists between the British, the Americans and the Swiss. Coming from the UK, having lived in the USA and currently residing in Switzerland I’ve had to deal with a variety of social norms and attempt to adapt to them…
*The American Conversation Technique*
My goodness, those Americans can talk! Living in Philadelphia and travelling around the country I was struck by how much chatting they do. I’d strike up relaxed conversations with the barista serving coffee in Starbucks; in the toilets of a black-tie fundraiser, and when I was sitting outside a supermarket quietly eating bagels (a man pulled up in his car to compliment me on my dreadlocks). In America nobody sees anything untoward in striking up conversations with strangers. At work colleagues would go into detailed & entertaining anecdotes from their personal lives. Friends would quickly share their emotions, feelings and personal circumstances without ever considering it a case of “too much information”.
And yet to an American, all this conversation-ing doesn’t automatically signify closeness. You have a detailed chat with the cashier about what you’re doing in Philadelphia…but it’s still strictly a customer-server relationship. You can shoot the breeze with a bunch of people, but don’t necessarily walk away from it with a new group of friends. This is part of the reason why Americans get labelled shallow or fake: to them a breezy conversation is mere politeness, to foreigners it usually signifies much more.
*The British Conversation Technique*
If you spend two hours having a natter with a group of Brits…it invariably means that you are forming a friendship with them. To the Brits, there’s a clear communication difference between Friends & Strangers: it is improper to share too much information with the latter, but totally acceptable with the former. To the Brits small-talk is the key to navigating social spheres (parties, business colleagues, casual acquaintances): the art of propagating a respectfully-sized conversation through the exchange of entirely non earth-shattering facts. Such as the weather. Or what you did last weekend. Or maybe a recent political event. Small-talk comes in handy when we know someone well enough to strike up a conversation with them, but not well enough to get into intimate personal details.
British people come off as slightly reticent & reserved; for us a bit of distance is politeness, though between friends the reserve isn’t really noticeable. You can clearly tell when you’ve made friends with a Brit.
*The Swiss-German Conversation Technique*
The Swiss just don’t “get” small-talk. If they don’t know somebody well enough to share personal information (or “big-talk”), they don’t see the point in having conversations about nothing. If the Swiss want to communicate a point they won’t preamble or be indirect, which saves time admittedly but still causes a bit of a shock. If you count as a friend they won’t necessarily divulge personal information to you – emotions and their like are private things they don’t want to force upon others. Work colleagues strictly discuss politics and business over lunch break.
It isn’t coldness. It’s just a different perception of where the “whoah, too much information!” line is drawn.
What do other people think? How much information do you share in your conversations, and with whom? What counts as “conversational politeness”? And…Do you find prefer talking with the Americans, the Swiss or the British? !