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The Perils of Small Talk

The Perils of Small Talk
The Perils of Small Talk

The most mundane life skills can be a challenge when you don’t yet master the language or the culture of a country.

Take phone calls, for instance. People speak fast, the environment is sometime noisy, you can’t rely on body language and you have to pay attention to say something smart when you’re supposed to in order to prevent uncomfortable lulls in the conversation.

I’ve never been much of a phone person, even in France. My generation is probably the last one who has been told that “phone calls were expensive” and that they were for “special occasions only”. I remember watching these American movies where teenagers had a landline in their bedroom (!) and were chatting to their friends for hours after school. Our one and only phone was right in the middle of the living room. Ah! So much for privacy!

During my first couple of years in Canada, I froze every time the phone rang. As much as I wanted a job, I dreaded calls from the various staffing agencies I had registered with. The overeager employees were always in a hurry and had little patience for my limited language abilities. “The interview will be at 9:10 on Metcalfe and Albert, ask for M. Travers”, they’d spit out. Meanwhile, I was jotting down “interview, 910, Maicalffe and Halbairt, Monsieur Trévor”. Fortunately, most of the time, details were also sent by email, so I was able to find the right place and the right person.

Then I got a job in a call centre and after a winter spent handling thousands of calls from all over Canada in English and in French, I no longer feared answering the phone. You live, you learn.

It took me much longer to learn the art of small talk, something that, inconveniently, Canadians truly enjoy. The problem with such social pleasantries is the potential for sounding very stupid. You are supposed to connect briefly with strangers through light and safe topics. It’s harder than it sounds when you have yet to master the culture of a country. In a few words, your ignorance and naiveté become gleefully obvious.

My very first job in Canada consisted of selling flowers nearby various LCBO stores. The florist managed a brick-and-mortar location, but on Fridays evenings and weekends, he dispatched a bunch of desperate misfits (high-school dropouts, friends of friends of friends, me) at busy malls and shopping plazas and had us stand there for a few hour with flowers to sell. His logic was that people bought booze and that flowers were the perfect complementary product. “Sorry, I cheated on you. But hey, I have flowers and booze!” was how my French mind pictured the scene.

I was like a sitting duck behind colourful bouquets. Throughout my long and boring shifts, various people would come over, chat and occasionally buy flowers. I didn’t want to talk much but unfortunately, I couldn’t even steer the topic to flowers because I didn’t know shit about flowers except their lovely colours I could describe with a few basic adjectives (“yes, the red roses are very… red”).

A typical exchange would go like this:

“How are you today? Not too cold standing here?”

“Good. No, I’m okay, thank you.”

“Yeah, the weather’s alright today, but it’s gonna drop to 5°C tonight, and with the wind chill it’s gonna feel cold… like this winter, remember a couple of years ago? We were snowed in by November, oh my!”

“Uh… yes.”

I had not witnessed that snowy winter. I had nothing smart to say about the weather. I was not Canadian enough yet for this kind of conversation. I just didn’t know what to say and yes, I was cold, I was just being polite.

Worse even, sometime, people picked on my accent and asked me where I was from.


“I love Paris!”

“Have you been there?”

“To Paris? No, no, never. But I want to. So what are you doing in Canada?”

“I… moved here.”

“From FRANCE? Why? France is so much better!”

I didn’t have a standard answer to this. Life isn’t an elevator pitch. My immigration story was, like most stories, complicated. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to share with a perfect stranger—nor what it was appropriate to share and if the person actually cared. And all of this didn’t matter anyway because you didn’t want me to tell you the story in broken English.

My fresh-off-the-plane status was obvious. Once, a woman told me she was from London. “Do you enjoy living Canada?” I asked. She looked at me funny. Of course, she was from London, Ontario, not London, U.K.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have a dime. Here is ten cents,” I replied once. “What would you call the ten-cent coin a ‘dime’?” I ranted to Feng later. “It doesn’t make any sense!”

In small talk, the entire short conversation is a space-filler. I just didn’t know how to fill in the blanks and I didn’t know much about safe topics, like television shows or sports. I didn’t have any insights to offer. I was too busy learning about my new environment.

In my new world, Senators played hockey (not actual senators, apparently), traffic on the 417 was always bad and people were spending their long weekends at “the cottage”, a mysterious place you apparently needed a giant pickup truck to reach. Political opinions were considering a personal topic but it was perfectly fine to tell strangers about your life goals, your diet strategies and whatever life-changing experience you had.

I was still French. I didn’t smile because French don’t smile unless they have a reason to. I was polite but distant. I wasn’t rude, though. Just self-conscious.

I was starting to measure how long it would take me to fit in, to absorb a new culture, its references and little quirks. This whole moving abroad business was a bit more complex than I had envisioned.

It took me years, but I’m better at small talk now.

If we meet in the street, we can talk about anything. I’ll comment on the weather like a pro, I promise.

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