SMALL TALK FOR BRITISH LEARNERS: WHAT TO TALK ABOUT WHEN YOU ARE IN SPAIN.
Living in Britain we are never short of small talk material. Are we? I once went on a half hour train journey talking to a stranger about nothing but the weather: the unreliable, surprising, out of the blue, crazy old British weather. Much disliked, yet so handy when conversation is dwindling, especially in the summer.
Now, if you tried this small talk “technique” in Spain, your chat would be knocked dead in about 5 minutes. It’s not that we don’t speak about the weather. We do, but weather talk is limited to degrees of heat up or down rather than freakish weather fronts and the 102 different ways rain falls.
Once you and your Spanish friend, colleague or family member have settled on how many degrees hotter it is going to get according to your mobile apps, where next? What do Spaniards actually talk about when there’s time to fill?
Here are a few tips on body language, social conventions and topics which are favoured by Spaniards. By no means are these meant to be exhaustive. They draw from my own experience and those close to me who had to get used to the “Spanish way”. The topics are classic themes that are well liked and come up frequently in different contexts. These ice breakers will help you chat away confidently through your next “sobremesa”, coffee break or family do.
Spanish people and Mediterranean cultures in general are less worried and aware of personal space. If you are British, others invading your territory might feel uneasy or down right uncomfortable. The good news is that when Spaniards stand close to you, they are including you and welcoming you into their social bubble. It’s somehow a compliment and you should take it as such.
EYE CONTACT AND THE FOREARM SLAP
Beware, because the awkwardness does not end once you let others access your personal space. After the space invasion get ready for the direct eye contact. This is a sign of acceptance, interest and attention to what you are saying. It feels intimidating but again, take it for what it is, this person is actually listening to you talk Spanish!
If you were playing a video game this would be the level you are aiming at. The ultimate frontier or more like, lack of frontier: the arm slap. When you make someone laugh or the conversation gets really animated, you might be privileged enough to get the “arm slap”. This gesture is the definitive seal of approval. You also know your rite of passage is well and truly complete when you can accept the slap in a relaxed and easy way.
COUNTRIES AND CULTURES
Spaniards are generally genuinely interested in knowing about other countries and cultures. You might be asked about your country’s traditions, such as tea drinking, public institutions like the monarchy or typical food and drink.
What we, Spanish people, love more than talking about other countries, is talking about Spain. Spaniards are a proud nation who feel passionate about traditions, cuisine, architecture and culture in general. Talk about the places you have visited in Spain, the local gastronomy or national art heroes like Picasso or Gaudí. Appreciation for all things Spanish will go a long way.
Unless you are with people you know really well, and as a general rule, avoid difficult subjects such as bull fighting or politics. Although healthy debate is welcome in conversation, confrontation is a small talk killer.
England to Spanish people is a synonym of football. It will be assumed that you support a team. Just be prepared for some “expert” talk from fans. Whether some people love it or hate it, football is a crucial part of Spanish culture and entertainment. Just do not talk about cricket. No one is interested in cricket.
You might be surprised what British exports lurk in the Spanish collective subconscious. You can have endless exchanges about the ubiquitous Beatles, period dramas, Mr Benn, Benny Hill and Brit Pop. Do not make fun of Julio Iglesias. Some people actually like him.
British humour in all its forms is very popular in Spain. Make Spaniards laugh and they will remember you forever.
Once you get to know us and our quirks, you will never feel as comfortable as in the company of Spaniards. Spanish friends are loyal, hospitable, generous and worth having a slapped forearm.