Transparent Language Blog

Small Talk is a Big Deal: Perceptions of Chit-chat Around the World Posted by on Apr 14, 2014 in Archived Posts


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 people in the U.S. 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 the United States).

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 ritual, 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?

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About the Author: meaghan

Meaghan is the Marketing Communications Manager at Transparent Language. She speaks enough French and Spanish to survive, and remembers enough Hausa to say "Hello my name is Meaghan, I'm studying Hausa." (But sadly that's it).


  1. Coralia:

    I found a small talk as an inviting process to getting know people from other cultures. To start one, I might be cautious and understand that being in a new place is a completely different world comparing with mine.

  2. Hans:

    Being from Germany myself I have to agree to the statements made in the article. I have found that I must sort of train myself to do small talk and not directly push to business.
    I therefore now read more regarding small talk topics (like

  3. A:

    I hate small talk, well, the superficial and fake small talk North American people are fond of. And please do not find a resemblance between it and West African small talk, I’m West African and we aren’t shallow people who talk about weather to break the ice. Weather? Sports? People, what about culture, news, international news? Arghh! Not only I hate small talk but doing it with Canadians or Americans, makes me wanna shoot myself: zero culture at all!

    • Kim:

      @A I am an American and I find trivial small talk equally as distasteful. I hate that asking someone how they’re doing is more of a superficial greeting than a question asked with sincere concern. And I hate that being loud and gregarious and obnoxiously extroverted is considered the ideal. I am much quieter and more reserved than that, and I have zero desire to talk about the sports or weather.

      • Chic Chick:

        @Kim I’d honestly say that’s a good thing considering that conversations on topics like international news and politics often devolve into toxic attacks and arguments. Sports or games often are topics that brings people together as well as the simple fact that some people just want to forget about the real world for a moment just to have peace and happiness. Do you really think strangers want to hear about a child that died in Syria or prisoners in North Korea after a stressful day at work/school?

        • Anna:

          @Chic Chick Do you think strangers want to pretend to care about weather in your area or sports they aren’t into? No. That’s called wasting people’s time.

        • K2:

          @Chic Chick During my college I mate with an European tourist in Kolkata, India. I tried to have a small talk with him and as per our culture I asked him about his family. I also asked him why he was traveling alone and not with his wife or parents or siblings. He answered me that in his country people are not dependent on anyone and loves to be in self company. Then, I thought he was being rude to me . But after reading this article I can understand that not everyone is comfortable in talking about their family. But in India we generally talk about family in first conversation. This article was really very helpful. Thank You

  4. Aleksandra:

    Well I am not from Scandinavia but I absolutely agree with them. I even don’t know what to say in small talk. What is the purpose of it? Talking for ages about weather or some other facts makes me tired and lonely:).. I like talking about real life..I see smal talkers kind of controlling: this is how they calm there insecurities. But I calm my insecurities with calming look or compassion not some crazy chat.. I feel crazy when I need to talk but at the same time not say anything personal..

  5. Suman Kher:

    This is a pretty enlightening article. I was looking for information on small talk for my own blog post. And this is an interesting read.

  6. Jennifer:

    Americans are far more diverse. One might consider that not all Americans travel and consider the type of personalities that lead in American business culture.

  7. Shubhada:

    Good material

  8. Rosa Braga:

    A few years ago I used to make a few business trips to India and they were great discoveries. Indians are very friendly people and really enjoy each other’s company, but I’ve never been asked anything too personal or embarrassing….

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