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US conversation style: It’s tennis, not golf.

And not soccer either. Some insights into US conversation style and how you can successfully participate in informal small talk and professional discussions as a non-native English speaker.


Tennis racket and balls

Sports play a big role in the US. From small talk at networking events to everyday office conversations, the big three – American football, basketball, and baseball – are recurring themes. Many Americans have a strong allegiance to a particular sports or team and are passionate about it.

 

But that’s not what this post is about. In this post, I want to look at how people in the United States conduct conversations: the flow and pattern of how they express their ideas, share information, and respond to others. (As always with culture-specific behaviors: these are tendencies, and you may meet people who have a different conversation style…)


US conversations: like a tennis match

 

“An American conversation is much like a tennis match: back and forth, back and forth. Each party takes their turn serving conversational tidbits, returning the serve with quick replies.” That’s what Allyson Stewart-Allen and Lanie Denslow write in their book “Working with Americans” (2020). The comparison makes a lot of sense.

 

Conversations among Americans, especially in professional settings, are marked by a fast-paced exchange of relatively short pieces of information: questions, facts, opinions, reactions, responses.


Here's an example:

 

Tom: Morning, Sarah. Any updates on the sales report?

Sarah: Hey, Tom. Yeah, it’s in progress. I should have it by noon.

Tom: Awesome. I need it for the meeting at 2.

Sarah: Got it. Also, the client called, wants to reschedule tomorrow’s call. For the third time!

Tom: Ok. I’ll handle it. What about the budget review?

Sarah: It’s prepped. Just need your sign-off.

Tom: Perfect. Send it over. Anything else?

Sarah: No, that’s it.

Tom: Great. See you at 2.

Sarah: See yah.


Communication is direct and to the point. Information is passed on efficiently, reactions are almost immediate, and actions are assigned and confirmed quickly.

 

That’s not just true for business. Next time you stream a US crime show or sitcom, pay attention to the pace and rhythm of the conversations. You will see that the tennis analogy is spot on.


Not like golf

 

Golf players generally take their time before they make the next move. The game is marked by moments of contemplation and longer pauses between shots. Compared to tennis, the pace is much slower.


Golf ball on green grass

Longer pauses are not a common feature of conversations among Americans. The expectation is to “think on one’s feet”: you think quickly and make decisions in the moment. As a result, there are also few moments of silence in conversations.

 

Most Americans are uncomfortable with silence. In some cultures, a moment of silence after someone speaks is considered a sign of respect. Not in the US. To Americans, it signals confusion and disagreement. Therefore, people avoid silences and fill them with words.


And not like soccer either

 

In soccer, players and teams try to keep possession of the ball for as long as possible (ideally, until they score). While the fight for possession - who get's to talk - can be present at the conference table, it is unproductive to dominate the conversation by taking up most of the available time. Rather, problems tend to be resolved in the manner described above: by going back and forth with suggestions and ideas.

 

It’s best to avoid long monologues that dive deep into theory and background context. Americans prefer information that is on-point, practical, and solution-focused. Clear communication that gets to the point fast is valued more highly than abstract theoretical explanations.


Wait your turn

 

These descriptions of US conversation style may give you the impression that it’s ok to interrupt others. How else would you ever get the opportunity to speak? But that’s not the case.

 

Especially in business conversations, waiting your turn is crucial and interruptions tend to be regarded as rude. People usually also don’t talk over each other.

 

Even though conversations are often a fast back and forth, there is a sequence, and one person speaks after another. People wait for signals that the other speaker is coming to an end. Then they make their move.


How to join the conversation as a non-native English speaker: 3 tips

 

For a non-native English speaker, joining a fast-paced conversation can be quite challenging. Because you're working in a foreign language, it can take you longer to find the right words and formulate your sentences. That’s normal. Here are three tips for you:


Sign on pinboard: be an active listener

1. Listen

Conversations are not just about speaking, but also about listening. Learn to listen for the signals that indicate that a speaker is about to end their turn: a change in pitch, a drawn-out filler word, such as “so”, or a body-language cue.

 

2. Use signals

Learn ways to signal to others that you want to speak. One way to show your desire to speak is by using a word or short phrase that confirms what the prior speaker said, such as “absolutely”, “understood”, or "I agree". Then continue with your thought.


3. Grow your active vocabulary 

Often, when we don’t speak, it’s because we can’t come up with the right words fast enough. That’s why it is so important to have a wide range of words at your disposal. Invest time in expanding your repertoire and it will pay off in the situation.

 

The listening and speaking skills required for active participation in professional and casual conversations can be learned and fine-tuned through practice. Reach out to me if you need help. I look forward to hearing from you.





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