Culture Speak

Category: Third Culture Kids

coffee_shop_smalltalkHi guys, it's Cami here! Wow! It’s been a while since I wrote for Libby. She asked me to write a blog entry for her this week. I was really glad when she did because I have been doing a bit of thinking about my TCK tribe’s language lately. Particularly in the area of small talk.

My computer dictionary defines small talk as ‘polite conversation about unimportant or noncontroversial matters. Small talk is making general statements in which all involved in the conversation can be contributors’.

That makes total sense. There seems to be definite ways and verbiage to negotiate conversation as we meet people. So in a nutshell, small talk is shallow talk.  It is the chatter that just happens between people when: 1. They have just been introduced. 2. They are in conversation with someone they don’t really have a relationship with…even if they have known them for a while. 3. They don’t want to be read as unfriendly, but there is no time or the situation is not right to talk about the things that matter. 4. They just don’t want to talk about anything significant with a particular person.

Small talk requires little to no emotional investment, and little if any self-revelation. It requires very little of me, except maybe to say words, which for some of my friends is quite difficult. I on the other hand can always talk.

So this is what I have been thinking about when it comes to small talk. I think it is cultural rather than language oriented. It seems each culture has it’s own form of small talk. The content of meaningless chatter is defined by the culture. There are even different levels of small talk that are defined by each sub-culture. For instance ‘girl’ small talk is different to ‘guy’ small talk.  Each group seems to have it’s own vocabulary and subject matter that is acceptable when using small talk even within the larger over all culture.

Okay…put all that in a pot at the back of the stove for a moment, and think with me about how friendships are formed. They always seem to start with small talk. Okay there may be an exception here or there, but the general rule is that we start with small talk. We begin with chatter. When we find our chatter fits well with someone else’s chatter and we start to chatter a bit more. Then we throw in something, a line or two that moves us along to a bit more than small talk, and conversation begins to evolve, or it shuts down eventually. (I have over simplified it, but hey this is just a blog!) So this chatter…small talk …is actually quite important.

It also means this means that small talk is human. All human beings, all cultures do this. They all use small talk as a stage in forming and determining relationships.

So is this really a big deal? YES! I am beginning to think one of the roadblocks to making relationships in other cultures is we don’t understand each others’ small talk. And where is that most apparent? Back in our passport country.

So think with me about TCK small talk. Do TCKs have a small talk vocabulary? Certainly! Our small talk is usually centered around particular topics like Food, Travel, Bathrooms, Airlines, Countries and often even international news. TCKs begin conversations with strangers on one of these topics. Okay maybe not bathrooms right away, but it usually doesn’t take to long when TCKs find each other for that topic to come up in a form of a story or something. Then when the stranger ‘gets’ our small talk it is fantastic and we think maybe we can have a real conversation and who knows where it might go from there.

When I return to my passport country, I don’t speak the same small talk. In my passport country they small talk about weather, shopping, sports, TV and music. That is not my kind of small talk. To me it is irrelevant. I do not relate to it. I find it boring.

Culture bump at best…full out culture clash at worst. I sometimes make quick judgments about the person I am talking to and attach “shallow” to my description of him/her. I then decide “nope” I won’t take the time to get to know this person because they will never understand me. I write them off thinking they have no experience of the world therefore they cannot be capable of any depth.  Bad conclusion! They are just doing small talk the way their culture taught them to. Small talk is not an indicator of intelligence. It is not an indicator of a person’s depth. It is just a way a culture begins it’s relational dance so to speak. There is always more to the person than the small talk he/she uses.

In English there is a saying. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ In TCK speak the saying should be ‘Don’t judge a mono-cultural by his small talk’!

Happy chatting everyone,


Photo credit: POS Nation.


Camilla is a TCK who gets to travel with Libby Stephens. Missed her intro? Meet Cami!

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