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May 18, 2015

Small Talk is NOT a Viva, folks!

Dos and Don'ts of Making Small Talk in EnglishDoes the idea of small talk with US clients make you freak out and want to run away? Does it bring back memories of your college days when your teacher made you stand in front of the class to defend your thesis during your viva? 

You know what the good news is? 

Small talk is not your viva, folks! 

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 big game' was that happened last weekend or what people do to celebrate Memorial Day.

Do you believe 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 (...or the coronavirus...) if you didn't, right?

If you don't know that the Kansas City Chiefs won the 2020 Superbowl or that England won the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup, 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 meetings, 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! 

It also is NOT like defending our thesis (viva voce) in college. It's not a pass or fail moment. No one is testing you! 

But, I have met and coached some people may feel this way without realizing it. Is this you? You are not alone! 

So, how can you respond when you don't know?
  1. Ask a question, "Oh you saw the game last weekend? Which game? Sorry I don't know a lot about American sports." 
  2. Empathize, "It's cold? I can't imagine, Kerala is always hot and sweaty! Stay warm." 
  3. Acknowledge, "A vacation to Florida sounds like fun. What will you do there?"  
  4. Build on to it, "I also love Mad Men! What happened in the last show? I missed it." 
  5. Compare and build context, "I hear New York City is a little like Mumbai, busy and crowded. Is that right?" 
  6. 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 (but don't write it down in front of them, of course). 

Don't memorize facts to impress. 

Just talk naturally 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 temperament 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.

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Small Talk Formula


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Original post date: May 18, 2015
Updated: March 6, 2020

Authentic Journeys: Bridging Culture on Virtual Teams

We help build effective, culturally competent global teams with focus on the cultures of the USA and India. Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director, an American citizen, has almost 10 years experience living, studying and working (owning a business) in India. Authentic Journeys Consultancy is registered as a Private Limited in India (Kerala) and an LLC in the USA (Salt Lake City, Utah). We provide onsite and live-online instructor-led courses, facilitation and corporate coaching.