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How To Make Small Talk That Doesn't Confuse Or Offend Your International Colleagues

People from "peach" cultures show soft exteriors and harder centers to strangers. In "coconut" cultures, it's the reverse.

How To Make Small Talk That Doesn't Confuse Or Offend Your International Colleagues
[Photo: Flickr user Adam Baker]

On a trip to Moscow, one of my Russian colleagues whispered to me, "Erin, you might want to smile less while in public." When I looked questioningly at her, she responded, "We Russians have a saying: 'If a person smiles at you on the street, you know that that person is either crazy—or American.'"

Different cultures use different types of behavior when they interact with strangers for the first time. That can dramatically increase the stakes on some of the early encounters between international colleagues and potential business partners. Something as simple as small talk suddenly becomes a make-or-break situation: Either blow your first impression completely, or start building trust right away.

What Not To Ask, Say, And Do

In the U.S., where I was raised, it's common not only to smile at strangers but to ask about their families and talk about your own children to people you've just bumped into. Other cultures tend to save all that for those they feel some closeness with. They feel it's inauthentic, fake, or downright intrusive otherwise.

I learned this lesson after first moving to France. I was chatting with a Parisian couple at a dinner party. I thought the discussion was going fine when I asked them, "So how did the two of you meet?" and my husband (who's French) shot a look of surprise my way. Later he informed me, "We don’t ask that type of questions to strangers in France. It’s like asking them the color of their underpants."

The danger is not just coming off like you're feigning friendship but, worse still, that someone else might imagine there's a bond between you that doesn't exist. Igor Agapova, a Russian colleague of mine, tells this story about his first trip to the United States:

I sat next to an American on the airplane for a nine-hour flight to New York. He began asking me very personal questions: Was it my first trip to the U.S., what was I leaving behind in Russia, had I been away from my children for this long before? He also shared very personal information about himself. He told me he was a bass player and talked about how difficult his frequent traveling was for his wife, who was with his newborn child right now in Florida.

In response, Agapova started to do something unusual in Russian culture: He shared his own personal story, thinking they'd built an unusually deep friendship in a short period of time. The sequel was quite disappointing:

I thought that after this type of connection, we would be friends for a very long time. When the airplane landed, imagine my surprise when, as I reached for a piece of paper in order to write down my phone number, my new friend stood up and with a friendly wave of his hand, said, "Nice to meet you! Have a great trip!" And that was it. I never saw him again. I felt he had purposely tricked me into opening up when he had no intention of following through on the relationship he had instigated.

Peaches And Coconuts

Different cultures have different layers of information that people either divulge publicly or reserve for private relationships. The cross-cultural communication expert Fons Trompenaars has referred to two distinct approaches to personal interaction: the "peach" and "coconut" models.

In "peach" cultures like the United States, Ireland, and Brazil to name a few, people tend to be friendlier with those they've just met. Small talk is personal and more in-depth. They smile frequently at strangers, move quickly to first-name usage, share information about themselves, and ask personal questions of those they hardly know. But after a little friendly interaction with a "soft, sweet" peach, you may suddenly get to the hard pit protecting someone's real, or at least more private, self.

In these cultures, friendliness does not equal friendship. I was once conducting a workshop in Brazil when a German participant who'd been living in Rio de Janeiro shared his impression:

People are so friendly here. You might be buying groceries or simply crossing the street. People ask you questions, speak about their families, and they are constantly inviting you over for a cup of coffee or suggesting that they’ll see you tomorrow on the beach. At the beginning, I felt so happy to receive so many invitations of friendship. But soon I realized that all those people who invite me over for coffee keep forgetting to tell me where they live, and those constant suggestions that we’ll meet on the beach the next day simply never materialize—because the beach is, of course, many miles long.

I was equally taken aback when I came to live in Europe 16 years ago. My friendly smiles and personal comments were greeted with such cold formality by the Polish, French, German, or Russian colleagues I was just beginning to know. I took their stony expressions as signs of arrogance, snobbishness, and sometimes hostility.

In "coconut" cultures like these, people display harder exteriors to people they aren't already friends with. They rarely smile at strangers, ask casual acquaintances intimate questions, or offer personal information to others. It takes a while to get through that initial hard shell, but as you do, people will become gradually warmer and friendlier. While those relationships are built up slowly, they tend to last longer.

So while my Russian colleagues advise that I tone down my grin when traveling, I suggest a different approach. For fellow peaches in coconut cultures, go ahead and smile all you want (who cares if they think you're crazy!), and share information about your family as you like.

But to avoid coming off as intrusive, don’t ask personal questions of your counterpart until they bring up those subjects themselves. This will make small talk pleasant and natural for both of you. If if you're a coconut and your peach counterpart asks how you're doing, shows you photos of their kids, or invites you over for a barbecue, don't take it the wrong way. This is neither a signal of deep, long-lasting friendship nor of false interest. It's just another tribe’s approach. And like yours does on the other side of the table, it just takes some adjusting to.

This article is adapted from The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD and an expert in cross-cultural management. Follow her on Twitter at @ErinMeyerINSEAD.

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