Look below and choose the five most useful questions below and five least useful questions (in terms of being taboo or not really starting a conversation) for situations in which you might really meet foreign people.
(Have you) been busy?
Are you (originally) from (around) here?/ Where are you from?
Are you married?
Are you new here?
Are you okay?
Are you thinking of changing jobs?
Can I help you?
Can you cook?
Did you get much done this week?
Did you have a good weekend?
Did you have any trouble getting here?
Did you hear the weather forecast (for today/ tonight/ this weekend/…)?
Did you see the match (last night)?
Did you see/ hear about…?
Do you do any sports?
Do you drink?
Do you follow (the news/ football/ any team/ any Spanish teams/…)?
Do you have (any) children?
Do you have any plans for the weekend?
Do you know/ work with (name of person)?
Do you live/ work near here?
Do you mind if I sit here?
Do you need any help?
Do you smoke?
Great/ Terrible weather, isn’t it?/ How’s the weather (outside now)?
Have you ever been to (place)?
Have you heard from (name) recently?/ How is (name)?
How are you (today)?
How are you feeling?
How are your family?
How long have you been… ing…?
How much do you earn?/ How much money do you make?
How old are you?
How was your flight?
How was your journey?
How was your trip?
How was your week?/ How has your week been?
How was your weekend?
How’s your family?
How’s your love life?
Is it going to rain/ snow (do you think)?
Is it your first time here?
Is there anywhere good to eat around here?
Is this your first time in (name of place where you are)?
That sounds like a difficult/ hard/ tough job!
That’s a nice… How much did it cost?
That’s a nice… Where did you buy it?
What (exactly) do you do?
What are you doing here?
What are you working on (at the moment)?
What does your company do?
What is it like, working for…?
What’s your favourite food?
Where is your family from?
Who do you work for?
You look stressed/ tired.
You’re looking good/ healthy/ tanned/ well. Have you…?
Try some of the questions with your partner, then discuss if you’ve changed your mind about how suitable any of the questions are.
Do the same, but this time extending the conversations.
Do the same from the beginning of the conversation, dropping the questions in.
What topics are generally good and bad for conversation with someone who you don’t know (well)?
Without looking below, rank the topics which your teacher gives you from 1 point (= easy topic even with strangers) to 5 points (= very difficult or completely taboo topics), without showing your cards to each other if possible. The topics on one card are all supposed to have the same ranking. Note that some topics mean mentioning those things about yourself rather than asking the other person.
The topics are ranked by how British people traditionally feel about those things. Does that change your mind about the ranking?
Check your rankings then discuss any surprises and cultural differences that you find, including what you know about other countries.
Discuss some of the 1 point topics, then do the same moving up the points level.
Taboo topics challenge game
Choose a number of points that you want to try for and your partner will ask you a question about a topic of that level. They will then reward you points up to that maximum (e.g. zero, one, two or three points for a three-point question) depending on your answer.
I’d rather not answer that (if you don’t mind). I’m sorry, that’s rather personal.
I’m afraid we don’t really talk about that in my culture.
Rank and discuss the easy and taboo topics game
(Recent) movies and TV programmes
Cars (e.g. something on the TV show Top Gear)
Celebrities (= famous people)
Complaints about a place you both work or live
Complaints about politicians
Complaints about transport
Free time/ Hobbies
How busy you are
International news stories
People who you both know
Places you have and haven’t lived/ visited
Precise job title and what exactly you do (= details about your jobs)
Sightseeing in this/ your area
The room or building which you are in
Travel (e.g. to the place you are now, commuting, or travel abroad)
Your bad points
Bargains/ How much you saved (for example in the summer sales)
Complaints about your children and husbands/ wives
Gay people who you know
Relationships between your countries and their closest neighbours
Relationships between your countries and their former colonies
Which school/ university you went to
Sports teams which you support
Start a conversation with a taxi driver
Start a conversation with the bar staff (if you are sitting at the bar)
Vegetarianism (= not eating meat)
Which newspaper (or newspaper’s website) you read
Young people nowadays
Complaints about the police
Domestic news (= news about your own countries)
How good-looking (or not) men and women are in your countries
Property prices in your country/ area
Publically owned broadcasters (BBC, ABC, NPR, NHK, etc.)
Scandals/ Negative news involving your companies
Start a conversation at the bar with another customer
Start a conversation at a bus stop
Suggest splitting the bill
The food that you are both eating
The history of your countries
Where you buy your clothes
The death penalty
Complain about the food to a waiter
Great things about your country
Discussing business/ Negotiating during drinks after work
How you really feel
Independence movements in parts of the country (e.g. Scottish independence)
Political extremism in your countries (= far right and extreme left)
Poverty (= poor people)
Previous political leaders of your countries (Tony Blair etc.)
Stand up and introduce yourself
Start a conversation on the bus or train
The 2008 financial crisis
The royal family
The sex industry (hostess bars, “massage parlours”, etc.)
Unions/ Industrial action
What areas you live in
What your houses cost
Which political parties you are against
Complaints about the other person’s country or area
Complement each other
Expensive things you have paid for
Health problems/ Medical problems you have had
Marital state (= married, single, divorced, etc.)
Parenting (= different ways to bring up your children)
Plans to have (more) children
Social class (working class, middle class, etc.)
Start a conversation with someone sitting at the next table in a bar or restaurant
Terrorism/ The war on terror
Trade pacts your countries belong to or could join (e.g. the EU)
Welfare payments (unemployment benefit etc.)
Which political parties you support
Your personal experience of the sex industry (strip shows etc.)
PDF for easy saving and printing:
Updated version of this in Teaching Social English: Interactive Classroom Activities
I am living in Mexico and happen to have a private class with a female Japanese student. Despite the fact that we have been having class for at least a year now and that she is a reliable student, she makes it quite clear that she is not happy with the class – both through body language and through what she has told me. She says that she wants to talk more. I do talk too much, but I always feel that I am talking simply to fill the gaps. Also, the class is probably a fraction of what it would cost in Japan.
Although her English is not that good, if I try standard lower-level conversations like ‘tell me about your house, the rooms and what there is/are in the rooms’ she just rolls her eyes as if to say ‘this is too easy and I’ve done it a million times before’. If I try any more ‘sophisticated’ conversation relating to history, geography, politics or culture she refuses to engage, either saying ‘I don’t want to talk about that (cultural differences) or ‘I am not interested in that’ (history, geography, politics).
I once put together a slide show of 60 ‘famous’ people (JFK, MLK, Brad Pitt, John Lennon etc) to get her to talk and she simply said ‘I not born then’ and refused to talk about them. So I put together a slide show of famous Japanese people to get her talking and if I didn’t know that particular baseball player or whoever she got angry and said ‘You not know, how can it be?’.
Reading your article about taboo questions or topics reminded me of my conundrum of what to do with her. There are so many topics that she refuses to engage in, and in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable, as if I were broaching the holocaust or something, that I have begun to wonder whether it is a personal thing (despite being a teacher, she obviously lacks general knowledge) or a cultural thing.
I have often thought of going to Japan to teach, but if she is representative of the general culture (I have no reason to suppose that she is) it would be a be a serious mistake for me. Any thoughts?
I’ve used this with numerous classes of general and business English students here in Japan, and always been a great success, even at lowish Pre-Int. Not sure if it would work one-to-one with that student, though, because the questions would still be coming from the teacher. You could do the grammar version and use just the questions that she selected as good ones to use.
More generally, she doesn’t sound much like a typical Japanese student to me, if only because of how direct she is in saying she doesn’t want to talk about something. More typical in Japan is just huge silences until you give up waiting and ask another question. What could be Japanese about the situation is complaining about something that is not in fact the problem. For example, unhappy students often mark that I’m “sometimes” on time on my feedback questionnaires when I’m quite clearly always so (as all the other students have marked). So maybe the issue is something else rather than the topics and questions. Unfortunately in Japan some customers expect the service staff to work out what is wrong without actually telling them, in fact even sometimes without the customer trying to work out for themselves why they aren’t happy. It’s rare, but this attitude sometimes spreads into classrooms.
I wonder if some clues could be in her situation. How does a Japanese English teacher end up in Mexico?
Thanks for your reply, Alex, it makes me feel more positive about teaching in Japan one day, should I ever get the chance.
In response to your question regarding my student – she’s not actually an English teacher, she’s a teacher at a Japanese primary school in a city where there is a large Japanese presence due to there being a huge Japanese auto-plant.
I admire her reason for learning English, which is because she wants to work for Japanese International Aid Organisations, but I’ve never encountered such a resistance in my many years of teaching to talking about the topics I mentioned. For me it just seems natural to compare things about where you are with where you were or have been, and it seems an obvious way to get someone talking, but for here cultural comparisons are a taboo subject. She is university educated (PE) but also refuses to talk about anything related to history, politics or geography, claiming she knows nothing about them because she does not find them interesting.
At the beginning she was much more open but with time she either got fed up or dared to start imposing her personality in a rude way, which seemed rather un-Japanese to me. She hardly has a sense of humour and is oblivious to irony, taking offence at any attempt at irony because she takes every statement literally. As a Brit I realise that irony can be a problem in other cultures so I keep it to a minimum and innocuous, but even then it’s risky.
Maybe she’s just depressed, but with so many taboos I don’t dare bring up anything personal. I probably would have given this class up about a month ago, but we only have a couple of classes left since she is returning to Japan soon. I’d rather not end on a sour note if possible. Also, despite her obvious dissatisfaction she has been a loyal and consistent student, never cancelling class, and she even gave me an Xmas bonus, which left me gobsmacked since I had never received one for a private class.
Sorry if this is totally out of line, but it honestly sounds like she has a crush on you and feels rejected in some way.
Back to the teaching, as I said the best approach would seem to be to get her to pick the questions and then to get her to answer them. For example, you could elicit what questions she is likely to be asked or has really been asked, e.g. if she gets that non-profit job, and then ask her those questions. I do something similar when preparing students for job interviews.
Or to explore a completely different tack – what approach have you taken to error correction?
I generally just quietly correct her errors as they come up and later bring up a grammar point only if there is a persistent error or if it seems particularly important. When I correct an error she is sometimes clearly irritated with me and frustrated with herself. Perhaps she sees it as rude interrupting. Also when she gets stuck and is searching for a word, when I proffer the word she sometimes gets irritated, obviously feeling that I should have let her find it for herself. Sometimes I feel that she feels that my job is to find a way to get her to talk and then just let her talk, but since she is laconic and just bats the ball back to me after short sentences this is quite difficult.
If I had read what I wrote I would also suspect a crush, but being there I really don’t sense that that is the case. I suspect that the only reason she continues with me is because she knows that a private class with a native teacher is much cheaper here than it would be in Japan.
One thing that is clear to me is that she thinks that her English is better than it is and lacks humility, while getting enormously frustrated with herself for making mistakes. Although she can communicate in English in a rather tortured way, it is rare that she produces a sentence without a mistake. Normally I would go back to basics, but she has made it quite clear that she has done all that stuff at school and feels that that old simple stuff is by now a waste of time. This contrasts with my other students here and my students in Spain, who usually seem/ed quite embarrassed and apologetic about their English and often underestimate their abilities.
I recently started a class with a Peruvian-Japanese 14-year-old who is humble and respectful, but was berated by her grandmother, who listens in, for making the class too simple. They want her to take the TOEFL, for which she obviously does not have the level (to get the university entrance score) but I sensed that her mother and grandmother obviously feel she does.
I am beginning to get the feeling that Japanese students tend to think that they have a higher level than they actually do. Japanese doesn’t share the Latin roots that makes English so easy in terms of vocab for so many under-confident Spanish-speaking students. Meanwhile, I have learnt this year that Japanese has incorporated hundreds, if not thousands, of English words (some literal, some Japlish – by the way thanks for that post) and I wonder if that has instilled a false sense of confidence or even complacency with regard to English. My other student (the theme of the question) rolls her eyes if I say ‘door’ and look at her to check if she understands, saying ‘yes, yes, that is Japanese too’ while looking at me me blankly if I say ‘cupboard’ as if offended that I should confront her with such a nonsense word that she has never heard of, and therefore must be very obscure.
Don’t know if any of this rings a bell with you, or whether I’m just unfairly extrapolating from an individual case/s to draw a tentative but not valid conclusion.
It’s not that the Japanese think their English is better than it is (they are notorious for being the only nationality who often go straight to reception in London language schools to ask if they can go down a level), it is that they think they’ve studied English and just need to change that knowledge into speaking, mainly meaning an emphasis on fluency, controlled speaking practice and functional language. I happen to agree with functional language and fairly controlled speaking practice for most students, but the idea that they’ve learnt English is crap, because they’ve often been taught English from prescriptive grammar books from 30 years ago or things mistranslated from Japanese by their Japanese teachers, and anyway in mixed ability classes in school and university they just studied the same old things over and over and understandably remember few of them.
Still, there’s little evidence that on the spot error correction works, and it’s even less likely with people who have a negative impression of it, so I tend to do error correction in other ways. The best approach is usually to collect them from class or typical errors lists, disguise any that were by students, and bring them in as a nice impersonal correct the errors worksheet next week. Or alternatively, present language by getting them to correct mistakes in useful phrases like “How do you think…?” X
Some students also think they don’t need any new vocab because they already know enough, which is just total rubbish and I totally ignore.
Thanks for the input, Alex. If my student spoke fluently I know that I would correct less, but she is very slow and halting and her mistakes are just hanging there in the air in the long gaps between her words or sentences.
Since starting this conversation it has occurred to me that her negative attitute may be a result of the fact that she doesn’t really want to learn English. Ideally she would like to work in Latin America and seems much keener on Spanish. She told me that any Aid organization would require a reasonable level of English and that seems to be the only reason she is taking class. Since she has no intention of working in an English-speaking country I suspect that she resents having to learn English. Also, I know that is frustarated at lack of progress, despite the fact that we only have one two-hour class a week and she does no studying at all outside of class, saying that she has no time.
The reason I originally commented was because your article was on taboo subjects and how to incorporate that into a class and I feel that I have come up against a brick wall where almost every topic is taboo – not great for a conversation class.
Some of my student’s apparently arrogant behaviour really doesn’t square with the idea I have of Japanese culture, and your comments have helped me come to the comforting conclusion that this case is much more about personal than cultural stuff.
Just two more classes to go! Maybe the masochist in me will miss her once she’s gone
As for the class with the 14-year-old Japanese/Peruvian I have been instructed to speak zero Spanish in class, since she apparently doesn’t speak Spanish, Last week my own choice of class was replaced by the grandmother’s choice, who always sits in, and now involves the student reading ‘SOS Titanic’ aloud, presumably so that I can correct any pronunciation errors as they appear and to explain colloquial vocabulary way off my student’s radar and which is of little or zero practical use. But the grandmother (don’t think 75, think 55) knows best, as she made quite clear. She told me the only thing her grandaughter needed was to hear and copy my accent.
Today I was told that the class would be recorded so that her mother (or aunt, not sure who since they never explained) could hear it. I’ve been teaching English for twenty-five years. This is a class with a native teacher, in a place where there are virtually no native teachers, for 150 pesos an hour (about 12 USD), for a girl who will be returning to Japan in April, where I presume she would be paying $20-$30 an hour.
I have always heard that Japanese culture is extremely respectful, especially towards teachers. My 14-year-old is indeed respectful, while at the same time being treated by her grandmother in a way that I would define as borderline bullying and disrespectful (“Don’t say ‘yes’, say ‘Yes, teacher!’). Meanwhile, in twenty-five years of teaching English I have never encountered such a lack of respect as I have encountered from my private student that I mentioned before and the grandmother of the 14-year-old that I am teaching now.
Are you sure there is nothing cultural going on here? Perhaps along the lines of attitutudes towards ‘service people’?
Glad to be of help. Different attitudes to silence among the Latin students you’re used to and Japanese students is obviously an issue too, but I think you basically got unlucky with that student and that grandmother. Bear in mind of course that people who choose to live halfway round the world are already a strange bunch (as also seen in our profession).
I also had a very very strange first Japanese student, in my case in my teaching practice group on my Cambridge CTEFLA course in London. When Aki didn’t know something he would screw a knuckle into the middle of his forehead and start grunting as if he was physically pulling it from his brain, at which point all the trainee teachers would shout “Okay, Aki, it’s okay. Please relax. I’ll ask someone else.” We asked a Japanese girl about how typical a Japanese male he was and she said “Aki’s special”.
Then again, I also had the experience of my teaching style being, I presume, too aimed at one nationality quite recently. After 5 years in Japan I went to Korea and got a fair number of complaints in the first few months. Don’t know what I did to adjust, but they completely stopped after that and by the end of two years I’d say my Korean students were as happy as my Japanese students had been,