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    Welcome to Authentic Journeys - ഓതെന്റിക് ജെർനീയ്സ് - US-India Cross-Cultural Training

April 5, 2020

How to Start a Chat with a US American Person

How to chat in an American style
Recently, a few of my friends in the US who weren't familiar with Indian culture reached out to me with this concern, "A few people from India reached out to me to be my Facebook friend.. but why are they asking me if I am married, have kids or who I am living with? How dare them ask me that when they don't even know me yet..." 

This was my response:
"I understand your reaction, as while I am more used to this after decades of interacting with people from India and living there for 10 years, I have to keep reminding myself that this is normal among many in India, especially if they are from smaller towns and not as familiar with Western or US culture..." 

My friend: 
"So do you mean to say this is their normal way of being friendly? I felt like they were trying to invade my privacy....I was almost going to defriend them, or even block them, but I wanted to reach out to you to ask you about Indian culture..."

My response: 
"In general, questions about relationship status, children and where you are living and who you are living with are kind of common and not typically meant to invade your privacy or make you feel strange.. but if you feel uncomfortable, you could redirect the conversation to another topic you are more comfortable to talk about....or you can ask them some of your typical "get to know you" questions..."

After my friend and I talked about this for while, it occurred to me that many more people than usual are also finding me on social media, maybe many of these people were not using social media before but are now because of having to stay at home and be in quarantine. Maybe many of these individuals are not used to interacting with foreigners or especially with US Americans. I thought it may be good to share tips to help both sides understand each other better. 


Tips for people from India reaching out to people who's "Native is the USA"


Definitely, avoid these three questions when opening your chat:
  1. "Hi... are you living alone?" 
  2. "Do you have kids?" 
  3. "Are you married?" 

It's possible that if you have started with any of these questions, you could have been ignored or blocked. Or, if not this extreme, the person may have redirected the conversation and you never got your questions answered. There is a good reason for that, culturally speaking. This has nothing to do with being from India. In fact, if another American broke these small talk rules, honestly most would get blocked, ignored or redirected as well. 

Why? Well, in the US, many people find these questions too personal. I know for example, when doing small talk training programs in India, hundreds of people found it strange that these questions were considered rude, intrusive or offensive, as these questions, if NOT asked in some parts of India (in informal or formal, work environments) would be considered offensive, or taken personally- as if you did not care about the person. 


So we can see that cultural differences still can cause problems if we don't know the difference. 

So, what can you say? 

Indians reaching out to a person in the US for the first time on Facebook could do any of the following [with example sentences or questions in English]: 
  1. Mention how they found their profile (through a common Facebook friend). For example, "I thought I'd reach out to you to connect, as I see you are connected to [name of friend...]" 
  2. Ask "Where are you from?" - this is not asking the exact address or sometimes even town name. Americans may respond with where they live NOW or the nearby city or the place they lived as children (grew up). Do not ask for specifics around this. 
  3. Ask "Where do you live?" This question refers to where they live now, and may not be their hometown or "native place." Again once they mention any town or state, you can respond with anything you may know about the place, but don't ask for specific details about anything. 
  4. If you see something on their profile that seems to be a common interest, you could talk about that. For example, "I see you really like going to the mountains.. I saw some pictures of that on your profile. Where do you like to visit?" Then, you can also talk about your own travels or places you like to see.
  5. Ask about their job by using the question, "What do you do?" 
  6. Ask about the weather there (video tutorial and more ideas), how's their day (video tutorial), or some other common questions listed here
  7. Try asking about how their day or evening is (remember if you are in India, it'll be the previous evening in the US if it's morning for you, and earlier in the day if it's evening in India). Or, as it is quarantine time, one could ask how one is holding up with being required to stay inside.

Avoid asking about:
  1. Marital Status
  2. Children 
  3. Who are they living with
  4. Don't ask why someone isn't married, doesn't have kids or why they are living alone or with X.
If the US American talks about it voluntarily, then let them talk. But don't ask deeper questions to probe further. Indirect questions may work better than direct questions. This is a skill that takes a while to develop. So for you to continue the conversation, you can talk about yourself. 

Also, since you may be connecting with them on Facebook, they may have pictures of their family on their page. It's best to ask about these people indirectly rather than directly. For example, you are connecting with a man, and see a photo of him with a woman on the page, don't ask, "Is that woman in your profile picture your wife?" We should not assume relationship. We could find something else about that picture that is interesting and ask about it indirectly. This is the same in an office, face-to-face situation as well. (Do not assume any relationship be it spouse, children, parents, etc.) 

What Americans think of "personal" questions 
In the US, some people may think they are asked any of these questions (martial status, children, living situation), that the asker is interested in them personally (like for a date), or you are invading their privacy (or sometimes worse).

Typically, even Americans don't ask each other these questions when they meet for the first time. If they do, they are either breaking societal rules or maybe they are also from a small town.  

Questions Many Indians May Ask When Meeting a New Person 
To the US Americans reading this, if you hear any of these questions, in most cases this is just how many Indians may reach out for the first time and they may not mean anything rude or untoward by it: 
  1. "Are you married?" 
  2. "Do you have children? How many? What are their names?" 
  3. "Who all are in your house?" 
  4. "Where is your native place?" (Means, where is your hometown.)
  5. "Had your food?" (And following with questions about food or diet.) 
If you are a US citizen who is meeting new people online from different countries, including India, be aware that some of the normal social conventions we take for granted are not the same in other countries. I totally understand that remembering these differences, and then reacting differently may be easier said than done, especially if you aren't looking to make very deep connections on social media. However, what I suggested to my friends is that if their gut makes them feel something's 'off'... then of course, dissolve the connection. But, in many cases I shared these tips with my US-based friends, they continued the online interaction with the person in question because they tried hard to keep in mind about cultural differences. Sometimes it's easier said than done!


Jennifer Kumar, author, is a cross-cultural business trainer focussing on US-India relations. She is currently based in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, but has lived and worked in India for close to 10 years (Kochi and Chennai). Get in touch with her for coaching or training today. 


Image adapted from telu.me

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.