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Cocktail Party English Small Talk American Style
by Robert and Reiko Inokoshi Seltman

This article originally appeared both in English and Japanese; Saga Art College Art Communication Magazine Be-Bi’ve. Kyoto, Japan1994

Americans often socialize. Artists go to gallery openings where drinks are served and people chat. Athletes and sports fans often go drinking after a game to talk over the action. Business people have parties in their homes for office associates and their families, or attend conferences and office parties. On campus students have dances and dorm parties to make new friends. To know how to speak small talk at such occasions is an important skill for both survival and having fun in America.

Although people everywhere are basically the same, each culture has it’s own style of party conversation. This article can help the Japanese student understand some basic techniques for making friends at parties in America. Travelers will find this information useful for Australia, England, or just about anywhere English speaking people get together.

The first point to remember is the difference in the role of women in American society verses Japanese society. In the US, women are expected to ‘hold their own’ in conversation. To be silent, when spoken to, can be a sign of ignorance and/or rudeness. When a woman does not participate actively in the conversation people may think she is either stupid or snobbish. Therefore the first challenge for the Japanese woman abroad is to overcome her shyness and modesty and learn to participate fully.

When Americans introduce themselves, everyone wears at least two hats. It is assumed people have a career of some kind and an active social life outside of work. Therefore, people should be prepared to talk about themselves in two ways, as a professional and a private person. By private, I do not mean very personal things, but of an interest outside of work like painting, fishing, baseball, travel, etc.

The two most common questions at parties are "What do you do?" and "What do you do for fun?" "What do you do?" means "What is your job?" but is more open ended, to include being a student, a musician, an actor, or other way someone may see themselves professionally. We usually answer with our career title plus some additional information. For example, "I am an art student studying at Saga College in Kyoto. I love to paint, and hope to be a professional oil painter someday." or "I am an English teacher in Japan. I specialize in teaching art students how to talk about their work in English."

Although "What do you do for fun?" is usually translated "What is your hobby?" this is not the best way to ask this question. The American word ‘hobby’ means ‘doing something small with your hands in your spare time’, like collecting postcards, making model airplanes, or perhaps knitting. Hobbies usually do not include activities like sports, fine arts, music, etc. and the word is often associated with very young teenagers or old retired people.

When Americans talk about their ‘after work’ activities it is important to sound excited. We say "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." We expect people to have an interest or two outside of work. Someone who only talks about his or her job is usually considered boring. Because we are responsible for the careers we choose and interests we have, people are expected to be authorities or at least enthusiastic about their area of interest. For example, if you say you study art, people may ask you "What kind of art do you like?" "Who are your favorite artists?" "Have you seen the latest show at the museum?" etc. If you say you like baseball, people may ask you "Who is your favorite team?" "What position do you like to play? "Who do you think will win the pennant?" etc.

We recommend students carefully study the vocabulary for their specialty. For example an artist may want to talk about their favorite medium, what they like and dislike in art, which artists influenced them, etc. If you can talk about your work and interest with sincerity and enthusiasm, people will feel relaxed with you and want to talk. If you are silent, or answer questions with one word or ‘yes and no’ answers, people will assume you are not friendly. In America, silence is often used to express anger or disinterest, and one word answers are usually a sign of rudeness, meaning "Go away, I don’t want to speak to you!"

Sometimes the conversation may be going in a direction you are not interested in. It is helpful to know how to change the subject. For example, you may not like discussing politics, religion, or an area you may know nothing about. Simply say, "I know little about …(the subject you don’t like) … but would love to talk about … (the subject you do like) … " In this way you can direct the conversation to an area you feel comfortable.

This is why it is helpful to have vocabulary and some knowledge of at least two or three different subjects. You make start talking about sports and find the handsome man or beautiful woman you are talking to is not interested in sports, with proper preparation you can easily switch to art, music, etc. The trick is, the more subjects you know well, the greater the possibility of finding a common interest.

Many people feel they have little to talk about, but actually we all know lots of things about many subjects. It is just necessary to choose our favorite subjects and learn the important vocabulary before we attend the party. With knowledge of two or more subjects we can easily find friends with similar interests at almost any American party. A little preparation goes a long way.

Copyright © 1994 Robert and Reiko Inokoshi Seltman. All roghts reserved.

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