Chatting Is Cultural

After A Game, On Elgin St.

After A Game, On Elgin St.

I was rush­ing to the bus stop at noon when I almost tripped on some elec­tri­cal wires left by the con­struc­tion site on Bank street. A guy walk­ing behind me saw me stum­bling and (ele­gantly) catch­ing myself just in time.

Drunk, already?”, he said with a big grin on his face.

Nah, just blinded by the sun, I’m not used to see it much these days!”, I replied.

He looked at me, still smil­ing: “I love your accent.” He even­tu­ally walked past me and waved. “Have a great day!

The exchange lasted about ten sec­onds. Usual Cana­dian chitchat, I guess.

When I first came to Canada, my Eng­lish wasn’t good at all. I hated talk­ing to peo­ple, espe­cially strangers. I’d go to the stores and try to keep the con­ver­sa­tion to a minimum.

I soon real­ized I just couldn’t do that. No mat­ter how hur­ried I tried to look, or how clue­less I may have seemed, peo­ple would always talk to me. Cana­di­ans love small talk.

Go to any store, you will be greeted by the usual “how are you doing today”. Climb on the bus, frozen after wait­ing in the cold for twenty min­utes, chances are the dri­ver will stare at you from head to toe (or rather, from hat to snow boots) and say: “pretty cold, eh?”. He will then move on to telling sto­ries of “the colder win­ter ever sur­vived”, “the most snow ever shov­eled”, “the longer it took to start the car one morn­ing” etc. Same scene in the sum­mer would bring a com­ment on either the down­pours, the humidex or the drought.

Cana­di­ans love small talk, and they are quite good at it. I’m still occa­sion­ally sur­prised when I see a mis­matched pair of strangers dis­cussing life’s lit­tle events and part­ing ways a few sec­onds later. Yes­ter­day, I was wait­ing for the bus when I over­heard an old immac­u­lately dressed gen­tle­man and a young guy sport­ing a pur­ple mohawk, a spiked dog col­lar and a cou­ple of crude tat­toos, argu­ing about hockey. “You should have seen them fight just a few decades ago”, boasted the gen­tle­man, “they were really putting their heart into it”. “Must have been kinda cool to see that”, sighed the kid. A few sec­ond later, the gen­tle­man climbed on one bus, the kid on another and that was it.

I only real­ized that I had been con­t­a­m­i­nated by the small talk virus two years ago, when I went back to France. Barely awake from the long flight and still on Canada mode, I queued (way too politely) to buy sub­way tick­ets in Mont­par­nasse. After 30 min­utes, I found myself in front of the glass win­dow, smil­ing at the already exhausted employee: “Hi, how are you? Pretty busy this morn­ing, isn’t it?”. The employee stared at me and for a sec­ond, I thought I had spo­ken in Eng­lish (don’t laugh, it hap­pens!). “What do you want?”, she barked. Ooops. I for­got, French don’t do small talks. “Ten tick­ets”, I con­tin­ued in my best busi­ness­woman voice, already prepar­ing the change.

It’s not that French don’t talk to each other, though. They are colder and more neu­tral to strangers, except in some con­texts: com­plain­ing, for instance. Put a bunch of strangers together and here comes author­ity, you will see them build­ing up friendship.

Last time I went to France, I rode the tramway with my mother. None of us had a valid ticket (this is for another post, but for the record, French love going against the rules…). The tramway was packed and peo­ple wore their usual “don’t even speak to me” mask. Sud­denly, as we were approach­ing a sta­tion, some­one yelled: “les con­trôleurs!” As soon as the tramway stopped, we all rushed to exit before the fare police could go in. They were only two, we were roughly fifty guilty pas­sen­gers — they didn’t even have a chance. The tramway left and we all stood on the plat­form to wait for another one. As if by magic, peo­ple started chat­ting. “I can’t believe how expen­sive tick­ets are”, said an old woman indig­nantly to a teen. “I know, I never buy any”, he shrugged. “Some­body should do some­thing”, chipped in a third pas­sen­ger. “And it’s not just the tick­ets, life is so expen­sive these days!”, added another one. By the time the next tramway had finally arrived, all pas­sen­gers had agreed that a good rev­o­lu­tion would solve most prob­lems and that the cur­rent gov­ern­ment really wasn’t good.

Chi­nese chitchat is another form of cul­tural chat­ting I noticed: it’s all about stat­ing the obvi­ous. In Hong Kong, at lunch time, I would often go for a walk. Upon return­ing, my boss would invari­ably greet by say­ing: “回来了!” (you’re back, eh!). At first, I thought I had taken longer than expected. But no, peo­ple would always say that, no mat­ter how long I was gone for.

Walk around in the street as a for­eign and peo­ple will walk pass you, nod­ding to each other and point­ing: “老外” (eh, for­eigner!). Buy­ing clothes in a shop would usu­ally bring com­ments such as “很高啊” (very tall). Eat­ing a street meal would cause passerby to say “吃饭啊” (eat­ing, eh!). And on top of that, peo­ple echo each other: “下雨了” (it’s rain­ing), said one guy shel­tered under the door­way dur­ing one of these Nanjing’s typhoon rain. “下雨了” (it’s rain­ing) con­firmed the sec­ond per­son. Stand­ing by these two guys, I had won­dered for a few sec­onds if I was sup­posed to repeat the same exact obvi­ous sen­tence just to fit in.

Chat­ting is cul­tural, I guess.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


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