This is a good question. There are considerations to keep in mind while moderating international teams. I suggest four ways to make small talk on international teams where everyone speaks different native languages and comes from vastly different cultures.
1. Keep it Minimal and Basic (The KISS Principle - Keep it Simple Stupid!)
Small talk is not an exam or a thesis defense. Keep the small talk exchange less than 5 minutes. What I have noticed is that those speaking English as a second language tend to make less small talk than those that speak English as their primary and only language. For instance a “typical” American or English person may make more small talk than a Spanish or a Chinese person speaking English as a second language for the same reasons you ask this question – not knowing the right topics to discuss and a possible lack of comfort in conversational English. So, if you moderate the meeting and notice native English speakers speaking for too long, it may be time to use a transitional phrase to redirect the participants to start the meeting, otherwise the others will feel bored.
2. Topics To Discuss
Keep topics general that people from all cultures can relate to. A few questions could be:
- “How is the weather where you are today?”
- “How was the ride in to work today?”
- “How was everyone’s weekend/vacation?” (If everyone on the team shares the same weekend or holiday schedule.)
Just like it takes time to build common topics of interest in our groups in face-to-face interactions, so it will also take a bit of time for our international working groups to build their own culture, experience and memories. If your international team works together for a period of time, asking the above questions can offer insight into group dynamics. Over time, those small talk interactions will lead to common small talk experiences or work-related conversational experiences that people only in your group will understand, relate to, or find humorous. Build on those experiences.
4. Small Talk about the Project
In some cultures, small talk is not only part of the opening and closing of a meeting, but will happen during the meeting itself. Here, questions about process or working style may come up. I consider these part of small talk because it’s not directly related to the work, but is somewhat related to the work and can offer insight into different people’s ways of working, thinking and getting things done. Some may consider these like brainstorming or planning questions. Some example questions may be:
- “Normally, when we finish this process, we do it by (describe the process briefly). Is this the same way everyone else does it? What other ways can we do this process?”
- “We would like to add this feature to the app/website to achieve (state the aim). We were thinking to do this, we’d need to add (describe features). Is this how it should be done? Does anyone else have any other ideas?”
- Pep talk. Building up the group or acting like a cheerleader when there are obstacles to overcome. Saying 'thank you' to the group for a job well done. Reviewing the progress taken is another approach here.
The above small talk tips will help you to manage effective cross-border team meetings, while setting a friendly, cordial tone across global boundaries.
Jennifer Kumar helps your cross-border teams build healthy, interactive relationships that promote team building and work productivity. Individual coaching sessions for executives available as well as classroom sessions on topics such as small talk and US business culture for offshore team members.
Do I have to make small talk even if my other international partners don't?
Conversation Connectors in English
Ways to Ask for Help
What Should I do if the Meeting Goes Overtime?