American Chit Chat

I have my old neighbors from Switzerland, Berit and Thomas, visiting me . I thought they would be bored to hang out in Devon, PA but they wanted to get the real life American perspective.  So I gave it to them. Our very American Experience consisted of hanging out in Devon, going to the Upper Main Line YMCA and a visit to Sea Isle City at the Jersey Shore.

We did some very ordinary things together to give them the impression of living in the United States. I took them along the daily routine. This evening, we went shopping at WholeFoods around the corner from my house. They took a long time as they marveled at the various choices and tastings in the store. They liked how things were presented differently and the variety of foods that they were not used to.

When we arrived at checkout, Berit insisted on paying so she stood there in front of the cashier waiting for the total. The woman asked my friend Berit “Did you find everything all right?” A simple statement to us fellow Americans who take this open chit chat as part of our daily lives.

Berit ignored the woman, not fully hearing what she was saying and probably assuming that the cashier wasn’t even talking to her. The woman at check out said it again in as friendly a voice as the first time (which doesn’t always happen the second time even in America). No answer. I looked at my friend and knew instantly that this “chit chat” was foreign to her.

I thought I better chime in and help out the situation. I told Berit that the woman was asking her if she found everything all right. Funny I felt like I had my elderly grandmother who was hard of hearing and repeating the cashiers words. Berit has this great laugh and  belted out a laugh and said “oh, was she talking to me?”. Being American and having missed this chit chat when I lived in Switzerland, I felt the need for further chit chat and filled in the woman at Cashier that my friend was not being rude, she is from another country and didn’t know you were talking to her. She understood the language but not the “American chit chat”.

In this case it was just a question about the store, but quite often when I am out and about in America I will have various types of conversations with complete strangers. Some of them even about some personal topics. Why is it that we Americans are happy to wear our heart out on our sleeves and share details of our lives in a random encounter.

When I first arrived in Switzerland, I tried to talk to someone in the tram and they gave me the same blank stare that Berit gave the cashier. When I tried a second time her eyes got wide and she looked around… are you talking to me? Needless to say, it was not welcomed.

Why are our boundaries so different?

Over the years, my behavior changed (after all I was there for 16 years) and I didn’t really interact with people in transit or elsewhere that much. I started to feel much more isolated and private. It felt cold and stuffy to me. I started to seek out groups of foreigners to interact with because it was confining a part of me that wanted to be freed.  It was funny, when I heard people speaking English I would launch into “chit chat” like a child devouring a piece of chocolate.

Have you ever thought about why do you like talking to random strangers? What need in us does it fulfill? What does it represent to you? Please comment below, I would enjoy to hear your feedback and experience.

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Posted in Communication, Cultural Oddity, Truly American
2 comments on “American Chit Chat
  1. Eleni says:

    Ah the ole ‘icebreaker/chit chat’ protocol, Penny. That reminds me of the icey stare I got once when I dared to chit chat with a Greek flight attendant with this opener “So do you do this long haul often?” I was standing by the drinks bay on a plane stretching my legs and quenching my thirst. It can take up to 22 hours to get from Australia to Europe. Well I’m Greek too, so I should have know better – I should have asked the traditional Greek icebreaker “Where are you from?” I have been asking this of every Greek I’ve met ever since I can remember and this one time I forgot. It’s like we instantly ‘google earth’ each other first – a way of downloading information from our cultural archives about that person based on the region, town or which church community they belong to. Then we work out which relatives and friends we have in common. Notice I didn’t say ‘if’ we have any rellies or friends in common.

    Of course I was too jet-lagged to comprehend my error when the flight attendant shot me the icey glare, followed by a dismissive answer. I realised it while sitting for lunch at an outdoor table with two uncles. They had taken me on a day trip to Olympia and we had just done the tour of Ancient Olympia. They were having a friendly loud banter (ie. shouting) over scenic routes around Greece, especially around Asea – my Mum’s village in Arcadia (incase any Greeks are reading and want to know where I’m from).

    Two men from a neighbouring table called out to them – “Hey hello there, where are you from?” Instant rapport ensued. I was amazed at how many people they had in common when they went through all the kinship networks.

    If I was to ask that question in Australia, the locals would think I was stalking them. Here strangers, checkout cashiers etc talk about the weather: “Nice day isn’t it?” “Is it still hot out there?” If you want to be seen as friendly in Australia, you start with the weather.

    In my cultural training I teach International Students how to ‘chit chat’ in Australia – and they teach me about their chit chats. Apparently “have you eaten?” is a typical Chinese icebreaker/chitchat.

    Isn’t it amazing how differently we all go about initiating rapport, consideration and warmth!!

    • Penny Zenker says:

      That is funny, I had not thought about there being an instant rapport based on the way that you start up the chit chat. A right and wrong way culturally to create chit chat. Thanks for adding that dimension!

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