Americans can find it hard to engage in small talk with people they don’t know. But imagine if you come from a country where small talk isn’t common – or where it is actually inappropriate? Here are 6 reasons foreigners dislike American-style small talk. See if any of them applies to you.
1.Small talk feels weird and overly personal. You’re quietly minding your own business in line at the bank and someone you don’t know flashes a big toothy smile and starts to talk about the weather. And then before you know it, you’ve learned she had a difficult commute to work this morning, has two kids she needs to pick up at 3pm, and is recovering from a break-up with her boyfriend. To be honest, I’m American and I find conversations like these to be incredibly bizarre. Imagine what it’s like for people from cultures where you just don’t do small talk with strangers?
2.Small talk feels superficial. On the one hand, this shouldn’t be surprising: small talk is supposed to be “small” in the sense that you don’t typically cover the great issues of the day. But still, when you’re not used to the ritual, it can feel superficial. Like, for example, the dreaded “How it going?” question. In some cultures, when you ask someone how it’s going, you actually mean “How are things going?” – as in: How are you? (and I actually care about the answer). But what about in the US where someone you don’t even really know well asks you that question… and while they’re speeding by you without the time (or inclination) to even hear your answer! Can you see how some people could find that superficial?
3. What do you possibly talk about? The weather? Your commute to the office? The big report due the next day? Imagine you come from that culture where small talk with strangers isn’t typical. And then imagine you’re in the US having to start one of these conversations. You might know in theory, for example, that the “weather” is a common small talk topic, but what do you actually say about it?? Do you rattle off the last five years of snowfall data for your longitude and latitude? Do you break out your weather.com app to preview tomorrow’s precipitation. Again, without knowing the script, you could go way too deep – or completely off kilter – without even knowing it.
4. Small talk feels inefficient (and like a waste of time). Granted, for people used to the dance, small talk can feel like that perfect little warm up before the main event – helping ease you into a conversation with some casual, light-hearted banter. But for others – especially those unfamiliar with the protocol – it can feel frustratingly inefficient – especially in a professional context with deadlines and pressure to get business done. Germans, for example, often find American-style small talk irrelevant and inefficient (in addition to being superficial). And if you think about it, you can’t really blame them. It does feel a bit like filler – almost like an unnecessary appetizer before the main course of conversation.
5. Small talk can feel dangerous. Americans might not immediately equate small talk with danger, but in many cultures, you just simply don’t make small talk with people you don’t know – period. And if you were to engage in a discussion, you’d be extremely guarded about what you reveal and to whom. So if that person sitting next to you seems suspicious of your lighthearted remarks about their backpack or the weather… you now know why.
6. It’s hard to say goodbye. Finally — for many people, the good-bye is the most stressful part of all. For people from countries where small talk isn’t part of the script, saying goodbye can feel really abrupt – and even rude. You don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings — but you also don’t want to stay talking exclusively to them for the entire evening. In fact, I know someone from China who avoids making small talk for precisely this reason: he has no idea how to finish the conversation.
In the end, small talk can be a key tool for sparking a professional connection, but remember cultural differences play a key role too. And when your foreign-born colleague doesn’t seem to take you up on that conversation about last night’s ball game, or the crazy April weather, don’t take it personally. They probably just dislike small talk… not you!
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017).
Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.