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