Chatting Is Cultural

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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.

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About Author

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

21 Comments

  1. Loved this post Zhu! In Italy you’d think it was always about chatting (with the hands especially), but I find that it depends on the location and situation. Big cities not too much (typical of such places perhaps), but small villages and towns, yes! I especially love the little old ladies around here…they are always up for a good gossip!

  2. I have noticed other Canadians doing small talk at work and I hate doing small talks. I just want people to get out of my face! I occasionally will try to say something but most of time my words are stuck in my throat. I’m scared when strangers come up to me and started commenting on something…I just want to be left alone.

    I guess this is the reason why people think I’m arrogant because I don’t talk to them. It’s not like I don’t want to, I’m scared to. I usually feel very uncomfortable talking to people whom I don’t know.

  3. Salut Zhu,

    Your post is so right on !
    How could you read inside me like a book? All this chit chat,easy small talk and contact are the things that I miss the most about North America.
    And yes… French don’t do small talk, and it takes a long time for them to open up and chat.
    And yes, when French are complaining, like you illustrated, they talk to each other ! Grumbling about the lenght of the queue or lack of employees at La Poste is a frequent one too !

    I so understand… people acting the opposite as in your culture, and in your head, you are screaming ” get me away !”.

    We understand where each is coming from !

    Bises xx

  4. I think Danes would freak out in Canada because they don’t like small talks. I’m fine with both ways. I’m used to living in large city like Jakarta where we don’t do chit chat. You just don’t talk to strangers, but then again I was also working as a journalist, a profession where I was needed to master the art of chit chatting.

    To tell you honestly, I’m not good at it 🙂

  5. Those are very astute observations, especially about the French. Nothing brings them together like anger 🙂

    And interesting about the chitchat in Hong Kong, I have a very good friend who comes from there, I’m going to ask her about that the next time I talk with her, very curious to see what she’ll say about it.

  6. Ah, the cultural chitchat. I suppose I saw different parts of the world to actually see variations of this. Growing up in the Philippines, I was somehow discouraged by my parents to talk to strangers: I was given the impression that the other Filipinos are just there to mooch from you, so better not say anything about yourself or else they’ll size up how much money you have and you’ll be a target.

    In Japan, people never talk. In fact, there are more people reading in public transportation than talking. The Japanese are a very private people.

    Here in Buffalo, chitchat is the norm. In fact, not greeting strangers is odd, and most of the time, I have my own stack of replies activated whenever I would find myself about to enter a situation where I can be greeted and conversed with by a stranger.

    And then, traipsing around the world I suppose made me look back again at the Filipino way of small talk. Yes, they do talk to strangers like they’re sizing you up, but most of the time, their questions are about where in the Philippines one is originally from. I suppose Filipinos are one of the most mobile citizens: you’ll find us everywhere. Heck, I’ve seen plenty of Filipinos in New York City, in Copenhagen, in Vienna, even in Lima. And every time a Filipino finds me on the street, they ask what province I am from. I suppose that’s just normal: asking where one’s roots is.

    By the way, I found an interesting tidbit. In Chinese, the word for foreigner is composed of two characters: one for “old” and one for “outside” (老外). Are all foreigners old at least in concept?

  7. I’m so glad you posted this because I’d been having similar thoughts over the past couple of days. I can’t get over the fact that every time I go out people are so “nice” – I end up talking to random strangers about so many things, salespeople share all the dirt on the store where they work, it’s unbelievable! I’ve been trying to decide if it really is so different between the US and France or if I’m just imagining it, but you confirmed it for me. Now I have tons of ideas for the blog post I’ve been planning to write on this topic.

  8. There is a huge difference in the amount of small talk that occurs here in DC vs. back home in Minnesota. Minnesotans are great at small talk – I talk to everyone when I’m home! Here in DC it’s not quite at the level of France, where small talk just doesn’t happen (except yes, you’re right, for complaining it does!), but people are much less talkative and open than in MN. Great post.

  9. @Khengsiong – Even Canadians don’t usually know their neighbors that well… chatting is more with strangers I find.

    @rowena – Oh, don’t get my started on old Italian women, they basically invented gossip! 😆 I have some in my family 😉

    @Bluefish – I don’t mind a little bit of small talk but I find gossiping too much, especially at the office, counterproductive.

    @barbara – It’s funny how different yet similar at the same time people from different cultures are. No wonder stereotypes exist! I like the North American way to be honest, even if I wish sometimes people would be a little bit subversive, like French.

    @Gail at Large – Think so? 😉

    @the writer – I have always had this stereotypes that Nordic people, Scandinavian, Russians etc. don’t like chatting much. Not sure why I have the stereotype!

    @Tulsa Gentleman – I find most Americans pretty friendly to strangers, especially in the USA and in smaller places.

    @LIsa ~ Urban Native Girl – It was fun to observe and fun to write too! 😆

    @Seb – Thank you! By all means, ask your friend, I’d be curious to have another opinion on that.

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – No, foreigners are not old! But “lao” (old) is used as a mark of respect and a way to call people.

    For example, kids or young people who are about the same age will call each others “xiao” (little). For exemple Xiao Zhu, Xiao Li etc. Adult will use “Xiao” when talking to kids as well. But you would use “lao” for older people, usually friends. Like two older gentlemen would call each other “Lao Zhang” and “Lao Deng”. “Lao” is also used in a lot of words, such as “Lao Jiao”, literally “old country”, which mean hometown or the region/ province you grew up in.

    Finally, there are other ways to call people, such as “comrade” (Tongzhi) etc. but rarely “xianshang” (mister) or “taitai” (mrs).

    Sorry for the long lesson! 😉

    @Soleil – No, you haven’t been imaginating it… although I though I was until recently, when I started thinking about it! 😆

    @Tanya – I feel the same in Ottawa. I didn’t notice it at first because it was pretty much the only place I knew in Canada. But the more I travel, the more I realized that people are more chatty in smaller places, or other provinces. Winnipeg was the most friendly place I have been to… “Friendly Manitoba” they say!

  10. Hey Zhu,

    This one of those posts that I simply love!

    Ok, Canadians are like the Portuguese! The Portuguese also love to chat with strangers, I have never seen anything like it. Me, I am like the French lol (I wear the “don’t speak to me” mask); but slowly I am beginning to compromise…
    My granny, when she left Mozambique, was very quiet and now (24 years later) she chats with strangers in the bus, at bus stops, in the subway, in stores, in the church, everywhere…it is amazing!

    “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.” – LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL beautiful!

    Funny, in Portugal people always ask that as well “you’re back, eh?” even if you have just been away for 5 minutes (this is the proof that we have learned a lot from our Discovery period lol).

    Chatting is cultural indeed!

    Excellent post! I hope you are feeling better :D!

    Cheers

  11. I simply love to read your posts about Canadian life. Makes me go back to the time I was there. I miss Canada 🙁 Miss the life and the people. When I was in Toronto, I was amazed at how most Canadian people were always so polite and like to small talk. Could it be one of the reasons why Canada is known to be among the friendliest places in the world? 😉
    .-= Angele´s last blog ..Une petite partie de moi.. =-.

  12. Oh wow, I totally see what you mean Zhu, both here and when we go back to home countries. Initially when people asked me “Hey! How are you?” I actually started telling them “oh you know, i left the tap on today and…” or “oh my neighbor is so noisy….” but then I realized that it’s just a greeting like “hello”. People often say “Good, How are you?” as a response to “How are you” and walk away. 🙂 I often wonder why everyone from bus driver to the school clerk are so chatty! It was interesting to read about China. 🙂
    .-= Final_Transit´s last blog ..30 hours in Platskartny: Part 1- Departure =-.

  13. I really enjoyed reading this. The insights into the cultural differences of small talk was interesting. Indians love to indulge in meaningless chatter too – or did until we got our high-stress jobs which don’t leave us much time for such pleasures any more. 🙂
    .-= Shantanu´s last blog ..Back to Cortez =-.

  14. This is hilarious – I love your observations about the Canadians, French and Chinese! I found it pretty funny in Japan too – when leaving the house or workplace they’d announce, “I’m leaving, but I’ll be back”, and upon return, “I’ve left but now I’m back!”. The response would be, “Welcome back.” Every. single. time. It killed me. I just love these kinds of cultural differences!
    .-= Brenda´s last blog ..Camping … finally! =-.

  15. @Max Coutinho – this is the proof that we have learned a lot from our Discovery period lol

    This is 😆

    I had always pictured Portuguese as very chatty for some reason, the same way Mediterraneans are. But I guess in the Latin world, you are usually open to people you know, not plain strangers — unless you live in a small place. But in these case, strangers don’t stay strangers long!

    @Angele – I agree, Canadians are extremely polite. Freakishly polite, almost! :lol;

    @Final_Transit – I was like that too! And I once heard the joke about a Canadian being asked how he is, while he is left in the middle of the road after being ran over. “Great, having a good day” he replies 😆

    @Shantanu – I do find Indians open and chatty, at least those I meet in Canada. But then, it could be the Canadian influence!

    @Lis of the North – Chinese chit-chat is… unique 😆

    @Brenda – Same as in Chinese, then. I can say “I am back” a few dozen times a day when my in-laws are here! 😆

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