“Once I learned how to make small talk with my US clients, every interaction was more comfortable. I was at ease to bring up any doubts or questions I had with clients I was able to make more small talk with.”
While small talk is important in many work cultures, especially when working in a face-to-face environment, we’d argue that small talk becomes even more critical to building relationships with employees, team members, or clients from various cultural backgrounds, even if they tend to come from cultures that don’t traditionally tend to make a lot of small talk. For example, many Germans we have coached noted that their culture is known for getting to the point, and not making small talk. But, when working in a virtual environment, they make more small talk then they may normally make because they want to get to know their counterpart, and talking is the only way to do that as they can’t see their body language or bump into them at their desk or the water cooler.
Specifically, when looking at the US and India, both business cultures do use small talk to build rapport and trust. While this is true, of course, the approach, dos and don’ts and acceptable topics differ. And while both cultures may define ‘small talk’ differently, there are common aspects. The most common aspect or goal of small talk is to break the ice, not sound so robotic, and to be conversational. All it takes to improve this soft-skill is just a few small sentences, questions, observations, or interactions to get off on the right foot.
1. What can we say or ask?
Maybe you call everyday. If so, always open the conversation with any one of these conversation starters:
Invariably, people love to ask about, and then complain about the weather!
People may talk about how the weather prevented them from having fun or how in a miracle of miracles, the weather cooperated with them for their outdoor events.
Always try to follow up on their answer by asking another open-ended question or make a statement, such as “Wow, that sounds like fun!” or “You went to St. Louis. In which state is that?” or “You drove to your vacation spot. How far is that from your home?” Be creative in your follow up question. Feel free to ask one or two, but not very personal ones about relations. Stick to the facts or events that were already referred to and get clarification.
2. Think about the word choices
American English uses different words and idioms than Indian English. Sometimes, some words used in India will befuddle or totally confuse an American. For instance, two good examples are using the word ’weekend’ and not ‘holiday’ for Saturdays and Sundays (non-working days), and using the word ‘vacation’ or ‘days off’ instead of ‘out-of-station’.
3. Be aware of non-verbal behavior
If you are unsure how you sound non-verbally, a good tip is to record yourself and listen to it later. While it’s true many of us shudder at the thought of hearing our voice through a recording device, it’s an important exercise. Doing this helps us hear how our voice sounds, and if don’t sound as we want to be perceived, it may be time to work on enhancing our voice.
4. Listen for filler words and expressions.
Though business conversations with Americans may sound task oriented, I challenge you to record a few conversations with your clients or customers to review their speech patterns. There are many kind of filler words, questions, or statements that are said. This banter is done to show compliance, express disagreement, express enthusiasm and motivate and team spirit, decide on the work flow, to clear confusion, review or refresh one’s memory on the previous or present topics, among many other reasons for banter. To say banter is exclusive to American business conversations is also a fallacy. If one becomes aware of business conversations in one’s own native language, surely banter exists there too. Is there a way to transfer this banter to your conversations with your American counterparts? Banter helps take the edge off of “always serious” conversations, brings in feeling and helps us relate to each other better.
If you’re wondering how to find the right words to say to an American, the best solution to this problem is ‘shadowing.’ Shadowing is a communication technique where we pay close attention to the other’s non-verbal and verbal choices and mimic or copy them. What words are they using? How are they using these words? Try using the same words and phrases with other Americans. To relate best to anyone, shadowing (also known as mirroring) works wonders. If there is any doubt about this, just remember back to your college days. How did you relate to your peers? Probably one way was by learning your peer’s slang or word choices and naturally mimicking them and using them in everyday conversation. This is mirroring, and you already know how to do it!
Practice does make perfect. Always remember that you already follow these techniques in your native language. But, if you are not using English as a conversational language, you will have to practice voice modulation, getting the right flow, showing emotion while talking and, if necessary, even pronunciation adjustment. Thinking of English as only an academic or professional language is a big barrier here. Start trying to use English in more places where you have to express yourself, and put feeling into your words. Don’t hesitate to be bold and ask for help.
*Take note that the phrases and questions here in are written in a conversational style; which may or may not always be grammatically correct. These phrases are based on the author’s experience living in northeastern parts of the United States. Though greetings across the country may be similar, word choices may differ. Pay attention to your colleagues, note their word choices, and mirror them as appropriate.
Jennifer Kumar offers training programs to help Indians close the culture gap with Americans in office environments. Contact Jennifer for more information on the training Introductions, Small Talk and Conversation Tips with Americans.
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