Making Conversation, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
Everyday Life
Etiquette

Making Conversation
Americans can become fairly intimate and personal in conversation, though controversial subjects like sex, religion, and politics are often best avoided, at least until you get a good idea of the views of the people you are talking to.

It is permissible for an American to start a conversation with a stranger but the conversation should be immediately ended if the person does not seem to want to talk. Be especially careful not to force your attention on someone in a plane, train or bus.

An accepted conversation starter is “What do you do?” meaning “What do you do for a living?” “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” is also a safe question. Americans also love to talk about their children. Since Americans are not particularly open about the subject of death, you will want to make sure a person's parents are alive before referring to them or asking about them.

Some Americans can spend a great deal of time in casual social circumstances talking about astrology. You can be sure that sooner or later you will be asked “What's your sign?” in a friendly manner. If you don't know your “sign” you can find it in any newspaper's astrology column. Even if you don't believe in astrology, it is often a good, non-controversial subject of conversation among people who do not know each other well.

Unless you know an American very well, it is not a good idea to criticize American society, apparent social injustices in America, or American ways of doing things. Americans usually think their way of doing things is either the best way or the only way. They have little exposure to or knowledge of other cultures. You might be 100% right in your criticism, but you won't get the point across to someone unwilling to consider it. In a social setting with people you have just met, starting such a political argument is undiplomatic. With people you already know, you can take some chances with controversial subjects.

If someone starts a conversation with you on a subject you consider tactless, improper or offensive, it is best to try to change the subject rather than making the problem worse by asking the other person embarrassing or personal questions. Don't lower yourself to the other person's level.


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