When I studied German many years ago, I learned something that was so surprising to me that I still remember it over a decade later.
As she was teaching us basic greetings in my beginners’ class, my instructor explained that if you ask a German “How are you?,” you should expect to get an honest response.
By that, she meant that Germans will tell you if they are having a bad day, feel sick, or even if they are having digestive problems!
She wanted to make sure we understood the culture behind the question.
Unlike in the United States, where we usually respond “good” or “fine” because it’s a routine, predictable question, Germans consider “how are you?” a sincere inquiry to the current status of their physical and emotional health.
Although I’d studied Spanish for years and had even lived abroad, this was the first time that I really thought about how such a simple question could mean something different in another culture.
For this reason, it’s not just about learning the vocabulary, grammar, and expressions that native speakers use to communicate; it’s about understanding how culture influences how you express yourself in conversations in English.
Understanding the Flow of Conversation
Beyond giving you confidence and improving how you sound when speaking, learning and using essential conversation skills helps you predict and respond to the natural flow of conversation in English.
Since native English speakers instinctively and intuitively use these skills, it may feel like they are following a script you’re not aware of.
Many of my clients come to me feeling like something is “off” or that they’re missing something even though their technical English ability is actually quite advanced.
Think about how people communicate in your native culture in your native language.
You usually start, continue, and end a social interaction with the same routine and the same typical phrases.
When you meet someone who speaks the same native language as you but is from a different country and different culture, the interaction might feel unfamiliar or unusual and these differences will definitely get your attention.
In fact, *I* feel this exact same way when I talk to someone from Australia, Ireland, or the UK!
For example, in the UK, it’s common to greet someone with, “You all right?”, which is another way of saying, “What’s up?”
In the US, if you say “You all right?”, it’s actually an expression of concern: the person might seem sad or stressed and need comforting, or perhaps they stumbled, tripped, or bumped their elbow and you want to make sure it’s not a serious injury!
Even though we speak the same native language, the first few times my British friend greeted me in this way, I had to seriously think about how he wanted me to respond! 😂
For the most part, we like conversations to be predictable.
We know what to expect, what the other person is likely to say, how we should best respond, and what kind of conversation is going to follow.
This flow helps us understand if we’ve a positive interaction, a good conversation, or if our relationship with the other person needs some work.
When you have a strange or unexpected conversation with someone, you might spend half of the day scratching your head and wondering what was going on!
Understanding the Culture Behind Conversation Skills
This is why it’s important that you make an effort to understand the culture behind the conversation skills you are learning.
When you are still learning English at the beginning or intermediate level, people tend to be much more forgiving of your mistakes – both grammatical and cultural – because they understand that you are not fully comfortable with the language.
However, once you become an advanced or near-fluent English speaker, people start to expect more of you and the way you communicate.
If you are able to express high-level ideas, people automatically assume you will be able to communicate fluently as well.
They’ll expect you to be fluent not just with your words, but with the way you interact throughout the conversation.
Even though you might not intend to offend someone, their reaction will be instinctive.
For example, if you say, “Are you ready or what?” to a native English speaker, they will likely feel defensive because the expression “or what?” is often used aggressively!
The same goes for asking, “What?” when you don’t understand someone – you want to choose a different phrase.
To become a stronger communicator in English, you need to learn why we use certain phrases or structures to express ideas, feelings, and attitudes through our speech.
In addition, you want to learn how to different intonation patterns so that you can express yourself more clearly through the tone of your voice – and interpret the meaning behind the words!
Now it’s your turn! Can you think of a time when you’ve heard someone from a different cultural background express him- or herself in a way that surprised you?
What are some situations where you wished you had known the appropriate response in English? Leave a comment and share your experience below.