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Small Talk, American-Style; a Computer Language for Self-Expression

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: language in action. We have two reports.

RS: We start with a program in the International Business School at Brandeis University near Boston, Massachusetts. It helps introduce foreign students to American culture. Sally Herships has the story.

SH: Wei Fang wants a job. But he says, he's uncomfortable promoting himself in interviews.

WEI FANG: "In China the employers like the employees to be hard working and quiet. They want you speak only when they want you speak."

SH: Fang, who is from the Shanghai area, is getting his MBA at Brandeis University. And he's looking for a job in the United States. But for foreigners, promoting themselves, making small talk -- things Americans take for granted -- can be tricky. I asked Fang how he felt during his first few job interviews here.

WEI FANG: "Lost, actually, when I was in the conversation. I don't know where to go next."

SH: Today is the last day of class. Students from around the world are setting up their final projects. In one corner, Isaac Ndawula stops to talk with fellow student Sheila Mutamba. Her project is learning to make American-style small talk.

ISAAC NDAWULA: "So after all this do you intend to take this back home?"

SHEILA MUTAMBA: "Yes, I do, because I think small talk is very important in all -- I mean in different environments and cultures. It doesn't matter how it's perceived, but it's very important to create a rapport with people.

SH: Ndawula is from Uganda. Mutamba from Rwanda. Both say in the part of Africa they come from, you don't get chatty with strangers. Mutamba says now, after a semester's practice she's becoming a more confident conversationalist. But she says her first attempt at making small talk was very different.

SHEILA MUTAMBA: "I was really feeling very awkward and very embarrassed."

SH: As part of a homework assignment, she turned to a stranger in a restaurant and started talking about the weather.

SHEILA MUTAMBA: "So I keep trying to talk, but I have all these things in my head. I'm trying to be appropriate, I'm trying not to be nosy."

SH: Back home, she says, things are more conservative. If a woman approaches a man, it could seem suggestive.

ANDREW MOLINSKY: "They don't know the rules, they don't know the script."

SH: Andrew Molinksy created the Brandeis program. The organizational behavior professor explains that even when workers are qualified, if they don't know what the norms of the culture are, they can end up looking socially incompetent.

That was the case with a Russian engineer he worked with, who had seventeen unsuccessful job interviews. Molinsky says she was extremely qualified.

ANDREW MOLINSKY: "But she kept failing on the interview and she would get feedback that she wasn't a great fit."

SH: The rules for appropriate behavior in a traditional Russian job interview, he says, are to be honest, modest and serious. The engineer told him smiling was inappropriate.

ANDREW MOLINSKY: "You know, 'All this silly friendly behavior, if you smile in my culture like this you look like a fool.'"

SH: "But in our culture it gets you a job."

ANDREW MOLINSKY: "That's right, or at least it gives you a chance."

SH: I'm Sally Herships in New York.

AA: Now we move on to another kind of language that can help people express themselves. As VOA's Susan Logue tells us, it's a computer programming language called Scratch.

JEFF ELKNER: "Go ahead click the green flag ... "

SL: Jeff Elkner's students are creating their own animated stories using Scratch. Most of them are learning English as a second language. Elkner, a computer science teacher in Arlington, Virginia, introduced Scratch to his students in March.

JEFF ELKNER: "At first I wanted to introduce Scratch to teach programming. What we found when we were working with Scratch was that it was actually amazingly good at teaching language skills."

SL: That doesn't surprise Karen Brennan, a Scratch project leader at MIT's Media Lab, where Scratch was developed.

KAREN BRENNAN: "We have so many opportunities to be consumers of media. But we like to think everyone should be able to create their own media."

SL: Scratch is an object-oriented language designed to be simple enough for anyone to use. Instead of writing commands out, users choose from commands that come with the program. There is also a library of visual elements included in the program. There are characters, interior and exterior settings to put them in, and objects they can manipulate.

Anyone can download Scratch for free from

Everyone who uses Scratch is encouraged to share their projects. More than four hundred thousand have been posted on the Web site in the past two years.

AA: That was VOA's Susan Logue. And that's WORDMASTER for this week.

RS: Check out our archives at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.