Out of all the things to be nervous about when it comes to studying in the UK, small talk shouldn’t be on the list. Primarily because, I hate to say it, no one is more awkward than a Brit trying to make small talk. They avoid it like they avoid running out of tea! However, there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to the inevitable run-ins you’ll have with various acquaintances around town/campus.
Primarily, keep it brief. If you’re walking along the prom in Aberystwyth, for example, and you bump into two professors from your department, just saying hello and gesturing to the wondrous ocean will probably suffice (it worked for me on more than one occasion). Being from a small town myself, I’m used to those interactions including updates on children, shared interests and life partners. In the UK, it’s widely accepted to say “Hello! Enjoying the sunset?” and then…. just keep walking. That was my experience anyway.
Elevators are another entity; safe topics include the weather (“Crazy weather isn’t it?”) or local non-political news. I don’t want you to think that Brits don’t discuss politics, in my experience they love to, but it’s in poor taste to ask about someone’s views on Brexit during a 90-second elevator journey. It’d be better to mention how a local construction project is going or talk about train delays/issues/run-times (everyone’s had a bad train journey in the UK).
Small talk is a great way to ease into a more sure-footed friendship, but there’s a greater emphasis on propriety in the UK—time, place, tone, in my opinion, all matter more than they do, in general, here in the States.
If it’s your first time in a local café, ask your British associates what tea they recommend, or ask them to help you make a cup. Everyone makes tea in a specific way and it’s an easy place to start a conversation.
If you’re really struggling to make friends, try to be in the communal areas, and then bring up a safe topic, sharing memes or funny videos can open doors, as well as just being consistent. If you have a class that ends at 4:30 in the afternoon, see if anyone wants to go to the café to talk about it, shared classes are shared interests and most likely shared topics.
Not everyone watches Dr. Who, not everyone is a football fan (rugby is a better sport anyway), and not everyone is from London. The trick with small talk in the UK and everywhere else is to just keep it simple! I found that asking where someone was from helped ease tensions, I could make a joke about almost noticing a difference in their accent and they could ask me and by the time that was done, the elevators doors would open.
Remember that if you’re uncertain, stick to safe topics. Small talk about tea and trains and cat memes can all help ease tensions and make everyone comfortable for the inevitable political/sports/television discourse. Brits aren’t afraid to have opinions, or to share them. They are rather put off at the mere accusation of rudeness.*
Thinking of studying in Wales, or somewhere else in the UK? Contact one of the ATP advisors for more information by filling out the form below.
If you want to learn more about ways you can prepare to make friends in the UK, try reading some of these blogs:
- 10 Things America Didn’t Teach Me about England and the English People
- Getting Involved: Student Groups at the University of Exeter
- Finding Where You Fit
- Post Graduates: How to Survive Your First 2 Weeks in the UK
*I’ve heard multiple stories from British friends about how, if you refuse to accept their drink offer, they’ll just keep offering until you accept. “Tea? Lemonade? Water? Can I get you anything? Just some biscuits maybe?” Every five minutes or so. They really are very polite!