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!)
There are two things I say to these learners:
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?
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.