“I moderate a meeting with team members from the US, UK, Dubai, Hong Kong and Guatemala. How can I start the meeting with small talk if everyone is from different countries, cultures, and doesn’t speak English as their native language?”
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:
3. Group-Minded Topics
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:
Take note, be aware of keeping time during discussions on these questions to keep the meeting on target.
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 are available as well as classroom sessions on topics such as small talk and US business culture for offshore team members.
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Original Publishing date: 6/15, updated 5/2020
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