• Thu
  • Sep 18, 2014
  • Updated: 3:00pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Chinese immigrants find Australian small talk too awkward

Cui Xia says even well-integrated Chinese immigrant professionals in Australia find the daily ritual of making small talk too awkward

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 July, 2013, 2:56am

Are language skills alone enough to ensure overseas Chinese fit well into their new home? The answer is no, according to a study of the social experience of recent Chinese immigrants in Australia, which found that their biggest barrier to communication is not language or knowledge, but the ability to make small talk.

The experience of 25-year-old Fei - a financial adviser who has lived in Melbourne for seven years, speaks fluent English and considers himself outgoing - is typical. Every time the company holds a social function, he's reluctant to join, he says. "Australians can walk into a party where they know no one and straight away they are able to talk with anyone, but we Chinese tend to hang on to one person, usually also Chinese or Asian, and stick to that person throughout. It feels awkward," he says.

And for 30-year-old Bai, who is married to an Australian husband and works in the chemical industry, even responding to "how are you" throughout the day proves stressful.

As anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski pointed out, small talk allows people to show friendliness, bond, and maintain a good relationship with others. Effective small talk in the workplace may even open up career opportunities. Yet why do these young and competent Chinese professionals find themselves lost in these situations?

The fact is, for many Chinese professionals, engaging in small talk is a new social experience. They lack ready-to-use responses to deal with fast-paced social exchanges, and struggle to get the timing, content, placing and tone "right".

This has to do with the pattern of Chinese interpersonal relationships. As anthropologist Fei Xiaotong vividly described, these relationships can be compared to concentric circles of ripples widening outward from a stone thrown into the water. There are distinct degrees of intimacy across our relationships, ranging from the closest familial, to the furthest stranger. Within the close circle, disclosure can be intimate, frank and critical. Beyond that circle, only formal interaction as required by work and basic courtesies are normally exchanged.

In contrast, individuals in the Anglo-Australian context are more loosely connected and interact on a basis of equality. Small talk suits this looseness and equality and allows people to achieve a level of surface friendliness across different relationships.

So Australians can make friendly, even personal small talk to people they don't know well, but for Chinese, these friendly overtures belong in no recognisable relationship category and totally blur their boundaries of interpersonal behaviour. Growing up not having much practice in this pattern of interaction, when bombarded by small talk in the new environment, we simply do not possess sufficient skills to deal with it.

Having lived in Australia for nine years, I'm still amazed every day by how Australians can hold a pleasant conversation on as little basis as can be possibly imagined, and at the same time couldn not help but feel a bit ambushed whenever a "how are you" is tossed to me. I just wish my Grade 7 English textbook had given me a heads-up on this.

Cui Xia is a social researcher at the Chinese Teacher Training Centre at the University of Melbourne. Her PhD study is on problematic Chinese-Australian social interactions at work


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Even people from English speaking countries find Australian humor and small talk difficult to understand. This is a country with a small population and little influence on the rest of the world located in the southern hemisphere with a number of animals that don't exist outside Australia. Australian politicians aren't well known outside Australia. Most of their jokes seem to include these strange and unknown animals or are about the Ozzie politicians or places that only a well traveled Ozzie would know about. In addition the Average Ozzie is abrasive. Their accent and slang are very difficult to decipher. Yeah, I agree, it isn't easy to fit in in the land down under.
Yes, but don't respond to the 'how are you' in any detail. It is a greeting, not a question.
Hong Kong born Chinese are not so traditional or bounded by the kind of relationship framework than those in mainland China. Even at banquets where me and a few friends were seated at a table with total strangers, we could make small talks quite comfortable (Cantonese in Hong Kong called that blowing water).
It has a lot with how open to foreign influence a society is. If you worked at a multicultural / multinational environment, one have to move away from the comfort zone of his own culture.
An interesting and insightful article... I imagine the lack of small talk skills may not only apply to Chinese immigrants. Other immigrants who are not from an Anglophone culture such as eastern Europeans may also experience such awkwardness. Small talk is very culture specific, I think.
Holding small talks with strangers is a social form in human interaction. Such skill is learned from very early on in growing up. I find even expressing oneself without expectation of response is important towards learning small talk. Accustoming oneself to say good morning, excuse me, bye bye etc is a good start. When comes to small talk, pick a topic and the easiest is one of your personal experience. Tell it and embellish it without lying. No debate and no serious stuff. Then shut up and wait for a few laughs and other’s small talk. Then say, ‘excuse me, I must move on to meet others’. Yes, you must and everybody too to keep yourself and the gathering interesting to move on. After all it is a standing up event so let your feet moving and mouth talking.


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