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Whether you’re meeting with a business partner or just trying to fit in with the locals on vacation, how you approach small talk is an immediate indicator of your cultural knowledge. The first few sentences you exchange may set the tone for the rest of your conversation or meeting, so it’s important to start out on the right foot.
In the United States, small talk is a big part of everyday life. Most conversations, even with friends, family members, and colleagues will start with some kind of pleasantry, ranging from “How was your day?” to “What’s up, man?” Even with strangers, we’re likely to strike up a conversation about something trivial, like the weather or sports. It’s such a natural part of our social interactions that we expect the same exchanges with just about anyone, right? But what about when we travel abroad?
If business or pleasure takes you to Scandinavia, you’re in for a shock. Scandinavians do not appreciate small talk the way Americans do, and it would be very rare to hear a conversation filled with social pleasantries. Most Swedes, Fins, and Norwegians have conversations to truly converse, not just to fill time or interrupt a silence. It’s not because they’re intrinsically rude, small talk is just not part of their culture. On the contrary, if someone asks you how you’re doing, they truly care to hear that answer.
Speaking of people who care, Brazilians are particularly fond of small talk and will strike up a conversation with just about anyone, anywhere. Soccer is always a safe topic for chatting with a Brazilian, but only if you actually know a thing or two about it. Starting with the fact that it’s called futebol down there (and basically everywhere that isn’t America).
Sports are a safe topic in most countries, including in Arab countries, where it is common to engage in a lot of small talk. Other popular topics include the newest tech gadgets and food. Russians are turned off by this seemingly superficial chatter. In Russia, they prefer “easy talk” to “small talk,” preferring to discuss an in-depth hot topic rather than the score of the game or the upcoming weather.
Their neighbors in China, however, thoroughly enjoy exchanging pleasantries. In the business world, first meetings among Chinese associates are rarely productive, and are considered more of an opportunity to meet one another and get comfortable. If you’re in search of a topic in one of these meetings, discuss one of your positive experiences in China, and you’ll be all set.
Small talk is appreciated throughout much of Asia, including in India, where it’s polite to ask about social matters, such as weekend or vacation plans. Beware that in India, you may be asked more personal questions than you’re used to fielding during small talk, but it’s only in an effort to establish trust.
Small talk is much less common, on the other hand, in Germany, where people prefer to get down to business. A bit further south in West Africa, though, it’s never about getting straight to work. Small talk is perfunctory in many of the cultures that make up this region. Asking a series of questions about one’s healthy, family, work, and so on is rituall, as are the practically scripted responses that would indicate that everything is just fine. As in America, West Africans find it polite to ask about one another’s lives, but not to spill out the nitty-gritty details.
Do you enjoy small talk? What have your experiences been with making small talk overseas?