It's ok if you don't know how cold it is when it snows out (not all Americans live in snow, either). We (Americans) will still like you, even if you don't know what happened on Mad Men last night. And, no one will give you extra work to bully you in front of your peers if you did not know what 'the game' was that happened last weekend or what people do to celebrate Memorial Day.
Do you beleive me? Well it's true!
Do you always know who played last night in the IPL? Or, every single bowler in every single cricket team? Do you know all the events in your city last weekend? Or, that American Labor Day is not May 1st because Americans HAVE to be different..... But, of course you have seen the most recent Rajni movie because you will be excommunicated from society like the plague if you didn't, right?
If you don't know that the New England Patriots won the 2015 Superbowl or that Australia won the ICC Cricket World Cup this year, it's ok. Not many of us can be the next winner on Kaun Banega Crorepati (നിങ്ങൾക്കും ആകാം കോടീശ്വരൻ- Ningalkkum Aakaam Kodeeshwaran) - Indian versions of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," but yet, many of us don't want to end up like Leonard during a football game making small talk with Penny's friends, either (Watch the Big Bang Theory clip, below.). (And, don't worry, that much small talk is NOT needed for most interactions with US clients in virtual meetngs, anyhow- phew!)
So, what do we do? What if we don't know what black ice is, or what it feels like to slip on ice? What if we say 'American football' to an American (who never uses the term "American" before it)? Or, what if we make a mistake about general topics? Will our clients throw us off the team like someone gets thrown off "Who wants to be a millionaire?"
Of course not, but, some people may feel this way without realizing it. So, how can you respond when you don't know?
- Ask a question, "Oh you saw the game last weekend? Which game? Sorry I don't know a lot about American sports."
- Empathize, "It's cold? I can't imagine, Kerala is always hot and sweaty! Stay warm."
- Acknowlege, "A vacation to Florida sounds like fun. What will you do there?"
- Build on to it, "I also love Mad Men! What happened in the last show? I missed it."
- Compare and build context, "I hear New York City is a little like Mumbai, busy and crowded. Is that right?"
- Find out their opinion, "Oh you saw the new XYZ movie? They are playing that in India. Do you like it? Should I go see it?"
Don't stay silent. It's ok to talk. No one will bite your head off, I promise. The important thing is to try. If you don't know, ask a question. But, do take the time to listen to the answer. If you have to take notes to remember what your client likes, that's ok. Don't memorize facts to impress. Just talk natrually in English like you may in Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil or Kannada with your Indian colleagues.
Small talk is there just to build a context to what a person is like as an individual beyond their business persona. Learning a little about your client's likes and dislikes helps build rapport, so when that time comes to talk about something more tricky (that deadline you want to move), you feel a bit more comfortable. Small talk is a window to a person's temperment and emotion that you can't get by boring, dry business talk alone.
Jennifer Kumar helps your Indian team members break the ice when starting meetings, coming on site and socializing during lunch meetings and happy hours. Contact her for more information.
Moving from Small Talk to Business Talk
Small Talk Formula