Building Relationships in Cultures That Don’t Do Small Talk

As someone born and raised in the U.S., I love my small talk. It helps me establish an initial connection with other people, fosters a congenial atmosphere, and lets me demonstrate that I’m a friendly and approachable person. In situations where we’ll never see each other again, it allows me to be social in a low-stakes and non-awkward way. In situations where we’ll need to build a relationship – for example, at an office – it lays the foundation for future engagement and trust. In many ways, it is my trustiest tool in my toolkit, the one I reach for instinctively, without a second thought, whenever I’m thrust into a situation that requires meeting and greeting.

Unfortunately for me, this social art form doesn’t translate very well across cultures – and interacting across cultures is sort of my thing. For example, I live in an intercultural family, and spend a lot of time with my Korean mother-in-law, aunt, and grandma. Not only is there a language gap, but the idea of aimlessly alighting on topics until we find something that sticks just doesn’t resonate with them. The problem isn’t that they are antisocial, but rather that they don’t just talk for the sake of talking, and they don’t talk as a way of putting people at ease.

I remember a few awkward moments way back when my husband and I were first dating and I kept trying to engage them in conversation to show them how likeable I was. I don’t think they judged me too harshly (although it was probably a kind of culture shock for them to see this American girl in their kitchen, blabbing away), but it didn’t really “work” either. They never really responded, and since small-talk isn’t a monologue but depends on some give and take, I ended up feeling like I was dancing with myself.

In Vegas with my mother-in-law (no small talk required).
In Vegas with my mother-in-law (no small talk required).

Another time that small talk didn’t work was when I attended an international conference in Slovenia whose participants were primarily German, Dutch, and Central/Eastern European students and professionals. This was more than a decade later, and thanks to having lived in Poland and having studied intercultural relations, I felt better prepared to navigate the communication differences. Even so, I still wanted to make small talk; it was so natural to me that I had to mindfully resist. Yet when I removed that as an option, I felt myself in a vacuum. I knew that my own cultural norms didn’t apply, but the other cultures’ behaviors were out of reach (or, I was having a hard time discerning what they were). I looked placid on the outside, but I felt out of my own skin.

Andy Molinsky, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Brandeis, writes about this phenomenon in his book Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process. I conceptually understood that the European cultures at the conference were different from my own, and I knew that I had to adapt, but when it came to actually doing things their way, I felt a little bit uncomfortable.

Near Celica Hostel (formerly a prison) in Ljubljana. When your own ways don't make sense, you can feel a little lost.
Near Celica Hostel (formerly a prison) in Ljubljana. When your own ways don’t make sense, you can feel a little lost.

Fortunately, although I had not yet read Andy’s book, I did what he suggested, and I looked for ways that I could adjust my behavior and style so that they were appropriate in a local context but still felt authentic to me. I embraced being an introvert – something I can’t do as easily in the U.S. – and rather than fill the space with noise, I just sat amicably but quietly. And unlike in the U.S., this didn’t come across as awkward, standoffish, or antisocial. Eventually, conversations did appear, and I let them develop gradually and gracefully. By the end of the conference, I felt rewarded when I was voted onto the organization’s board. Even if I hadn’t crossed cultures perfectly, and even if I hadn’t been totally at ease the entire time, I realized that I still must have done something right.

Several years on, these experiences still resonate with me – and in the case of Korean culture, it is still very much a part of my life as my husband and I celebrate 15 years together. Recently, Andy and I put our heads together to discuss these issues, which resulted in a Harvard Business Review article called Building Relationships in Cultures that Don’t Do Small Talk. As far as I can tell by the initial social media response, it seems that other people have encountered this challenge, too. What about you? Have you ever had to adapt toward or away from small talk?

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