Conversation Tip #6: As always, consider context

Context determines boundaries of conversation

“Respect for ourselves guides our morals; respect for others guides our manners.”

-Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) Anglo-Irish novelist

How wonderful that there are so many possible relationships to cultivate through conversation! Students, too, must appreciate the variety of things to talk about with every person in their family, classroom and community. However, as always, context counts, and students must be mindful of it when having conversations.

Students must understand the nature and depth of their relationship. Consider the topics they might bring up with friends, like sports, movies, and weekend plans. Compare and contrast these with what would be appropriate to discuss at length with a teacher. Secrets entrusted to long-time family friends might not be so safe in the hands of a new acquaintance! Bringing up religion might not mix so well with the grocery store cashier, even though it’s more than welcome Sunday morning at church. Boundaries must be recognized and not overstepped when making conversation.

All students, whether international or not, should be wary of differing cultural boundaries. Some cultures are more open than others about certain topics, and sometimes even appropriate body language varies greatly. For instance, in some Mediterranean countries, a head nod means “no,” in some Asian communities eye contact reflects disrespect and many middle Easterners prefer soft handshakes, considering them less aggressive. The best approach remains picking up contextual clues.

What types of relationships and conversations do your students have? How can they pick up context clues regarding cultural and other boundaries?

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Jessica Lu, a first-year student at the University of Chicago, interned for Chimayo Press and the Compelling Conversations blog through the summer of 2014. Over the months, she has perused ESL textbooks, analyzed newspaper articles and tested out mobile apps, seeking out ways to inspire discussion. During the fall, the Compelling Conversations blog published her top 10 tips to create compelling conversations outside of the English classroom.

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