Boring Small Talk is an Opportunity

19 Aug 2014

At AllSet Learning, I hear about a lot of different learner problems. One of the more common ones from intermediate learners is, “I just keep having the same boring conversations over and over again: where are you from, how long have you been in China, are you used to eating Chinese food, etc.” Learners tend to see these limited, unchallenging conversations as contributing to the intermediate plateau they are on.

(Side note: not too long ago, these same learners were likely struggling to get Chinese people to talk to them in Chinese, so from that perspective, this problem is a good one to have!)

Cab Driver Snap in Shanghai
photo by Toshihiro Oshima

There are two things I say to these learners:

1. You’re being too passive. Here you have a friendly, willing conversation partner, and all you can do is sit back and let them pick the topics from the same old boring set?

2. The small talk is just a signal. They’re trying to tell you they are willing to talk to you, and you’re wasting a good opportunity with your passiveness.

You can’t really expect a Chinese person to outright say to you: “Hey, I’m interested in you! Let’s talk! You can talk to me about anything you want.” So what does it look like when a Chinese person conveys this same information with other words? It looks exactly like boring small talk. So when you start getting hit with boring small talk, take it to mean this: “Hey, let’s talk! I can’t think of any good topics, though, so I’m going to throw boring topics at you until either you get brave enough to start a real conversation, or we both tire of this.

That’s a lot better, isn’t it?

Now about being too passive… All you have to do is keep a few interesting questions handy to pull out when you are in this kind of situation. Sure, not every situation is appropriate… You might be more willing to ask a cab driver about bizarre things than your girlfriend’s aunt. But at least have them ready for when you are “prompted” the next time. Keep updating your questions if you find certain ones are getting old.

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

– Is Mao your hero?
– What’s the best foreign food you’ve ever had?
– What do you think of India/the USA/Japan/Israel?
– What do you think of religion?
– Do you give money to beggars? Why or why not?
– Do you play games on your cell phone? What games?
– Do you believe aliens exist?

Yeah, some of them are a little serious or weird, but those tend to have one of two effects: (1) they stop talking to you (no more boring small talk!), or (2) you get an interesting perspective from them.

Good luck!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I noticed a long time ago that I’m more or less fluent when it comes to introducing myself and having these “boring conversations,” but seriously struggle when talking about…most other things. This post just opened my eyes. Next time I’m talking to the ladies who work at the 24 hour corner store maybe I should try asking what they think about aliens.

    • Go for it!

      One other note: bringing up new topics can sometimes be challenging because you’re raising a topic that’s unexpected. So you have to make doubly sure you get your tones right (for 外星人, especially) when you broach the topic.


  2. Really lovely post. Would be a fun thing to turn into a school assignment, somehow — weird questions for native speakers, for extra credit… or something.

  3. 3) They think because you asked such an interesting question (you memorized how to say it, right?) that they can respond using all sorts of vocabulary you don’t understand. Bonus points for bringing up controversial political points of the kind likely to make Chinese people angry or heated.

  4. Carlos Luengo Says: August 20, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    Nice post!

  5. In Peter Hessler’s wonderful memoir “River Town”, Hessler states that while he built his foundation in Chinese he welcomed familiar questions, comments and situations. In his view, the familiar situations gave him an excellent chance to practice and master these areas of basic conversation to the extent he became so comfortable with them he could pull them out of a hat.

    In continually being faced with the familiar, John Pasden’s students are reinforcing more than just language. The neurons are wiring and firing together on an unconscious level. Most of the students – because it is unseen and not felt – do not notice the progress they are making. The progress in this instance is familiarity with these areas of basic communication.

    I can understand their concern: they’ve come a long way and worked hard, and as a result they expect more progress. The progress in this case is based on speaking ability, and the speaking in this instance has plateaued. When athletes train, in order to avoid plateaus, they routinely change their training program and regime. Perhaps the same can be employed by John Pasden’s students.

  6. I was speaking with a young man about an old car in his photo ..
    He said he thought that it came from Havana, and I made a quick response of “Oh Castro and his boys.”..Not a good thing to say to someone from central or northern south America…After I back peddled for a while, I managed to settle him down…Quick retorts are very likely to get a person into trouble.

  7. Great post, I’m glad I came across this post. I’ve lived in both Japan and China and I found that I ran into this exact problem in both languages. I’m definitely going to be more proactive in trying to get the most possible out of the little conversations I have on a daily basis. Perhaps I’ll try and craft questions that relate to the vocabulary I’m currently studying. Thanks for the ideas!

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