When in Rome: Small Talk Around the World
Posted on May 19, 2016
We all participate in small talk, especially in the office. It’s a way to connect with our coworkers and gauge the mood or personality of people we’ve just met. But not all countries are big on chit chat. Some draw a defined line between their personal and professional lives and do not divulge personal information at work. Therefore NDTO has collected some advice on small talk practices around the world.
Brazilians prefer to engage in some light banter before getting down to business. They do not rush this process and most topics are welcome – the traffic, music you heard, the weather and Brazilian culture. Family is very important to Brazilians and discussion of children and grandchildren is always well received. Football (as in soccer) is also a popular subject and you’ll surely win some points if you’re familiar with Brazil’s team. Don’t compare their football team to Argentina’s, however as there is a long standing rivalry between the two. In fact, it is recommended that you do not bring up Argentina at all, the rivalry may extend beyond the football pitch.
Colombian business meetings will begin and end with personal discussion. You must show that you are actually interested in your counterparts as people, not just potential business partners. Do not rush the process of socializing by being the first person to bring up business. All aspects of life may be discussed – family, health, culture, sports and history. Your first and possibly second meeting may be entirely devoted to getting to know each other and your backgrounds. So relax, take your time and follow their lead. Topics to avoid include the drug trade, opposition to bullfighting, and Panama, as many Colombians feel it was stolen from them by the U.S.
Business in the Czech Republic can be quite formal. Your Czech counterparts may not smile while they converse at a distance and not offer the use of his/her first name. That is normal and part of the relationship building process. Czechs value privacy and take time to build trust. Small talk at the beginning of the meeting is essential. Travel, art, and sports are all safe topics. There likely won’t be many strong emotions expressed, but that is part of their formality. Personal income is an acceptable subject in the Czech Republic and is a sign that your business partner trusts you.
In Finland, small talk is a foreign concept. In fact, silence is preferred. Lulls in the conversation are normal and acceptable. Finns tend to be low key, not divulging personal information and it is advised for you to do the same. Listening and speaking without interruption are two important aspects to a conversation in Finland. For this reason, dialogue will move at a slower pace. That being said, frankness is also appreciated. Your words will carry a great deal of weight and be considered as good as a written contract (though Finish efficiency will still demand a contract in print.) A gradual move from a business relationship to a friendship may be developed over time. An invitation to the traditional sauna indicates that you’ve become a friend and may discuss topics beyond business.
Germans don’t do small talk. They are not as interested in a personal relationship as much as your business credentials. After initial greetings, the meeting will take on a formal tone and participants will get down to business.
Introductory meetings may feel like more of an interview than a conversation. A series of questions may be asked of you, with your answers interrupted after your counterparts feel you’ve sufficiently responded.
Germans value privacy and draw a firm line between their business and personal life. The German market may be a relief to those who prefer privacy and would like to be left to their own activities in the evening instead of attending events organized by business partners.
Acceptable topics to discuss with Germans may be their home regions, German food, art and athletic teams. Lightening the mood with humor isn’t generally appreciated. Trust and personal relationships are built over time. Don’t bring up WWII.
Israeli meetings will generally start with a coffee and small talk. Israelis are generally very direct and ready to debate any topic, so you can trust they will guide the conversation. They may consider the weather and views as superficial, so travel, food, sports and technology are more likely be discussed. Small talk won’t occur only at beginning of meeting, but rather intertwined throughout the meeting. The business portions of the meeting will be focused and straightforward. They may also mix in questions about your lifestyle back home and opinions on specific subjects. Try to keep up!
Meetings in Italy will also begin with coffee and small talk. Anything Italian is an easy subject, as its people are proud of their rich history, art, architecture, music and sports. You may bring up Italian food and discuss your own cuisine back home. Italians are comfortable with conflict, but not silence. Some remarks on your travels within Italy or on Italian football are a safe bet.
Small talk in Japan is a key component of relationship building. The first meeting may be devoted entirely to establishing common ground. Mutual contacts, Japanese food and your business may be discussed. Personal information will come later.
Japanese people are comfortable with silence. In fact, if you’re not sure what to say next during meetings, don’t say anything at all. Silence is respected in Japan and can actually make you appear more credible. Also if your Japanese business partners fall silent, let the conversation rest. Difficult subjects may require some moments of silence to reestablish harmony.
Personal conversations will occur after 5pm when you all go out for a drink. This is when you will truly get to know your new Japanese friends. See this article for more information.
Norwegians do not enjoy small talk during business meetings. They will keep the meeting formal and direct, with little emotion or personal information revealed. Being overly friendly upon first meeting may be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Stick to the facts and remain confident and patient. Honesty is valued and will earn you far more trust than giving an overly optimistic sales pitch.
Norway is another country where silence is accepted as part of the conversation. Use the time as your Norwegian counterparts will, to reflect on what was said and choose your next words.
When the time comes to talk about something outside of business, consider bringing up the Norwegian landscape and their famous winter sports. Norwegian culture, history and current events are also good choices. The Nobel Prize is a well-known Norwegian subject, as are Norwegian composers such as Grieg. Avoid speaking of the weather as it’s considered a superficial topic.
Casual matters will be discussed in the beginning – the weather, the traffic on the way here, how interesting or nice your Russian counterpart’s office is. Jokes may not translate well and humor in general can be thought of as inappropriate in the business context. Test any jokes with a Russian-speaking friend to check for appropriateness and if it was actually funny. Your Russian host will transition the focus to business when he is ready. In the meantime, general topics such as Russian literature, art, philosophy and music are good starters.
In Singapore, visitors will likely be offered tea or coffee and then engaged in business conversation without much small talk. It is acceptable to move the conversation back to the initial phase of getting to know each other if the transition happened too quickly for your taste. When business discussions do begin, your Singaporean counterpart may test your patience by moving the negotiations along at a very slow pace, or jumping between topics or goals. The slow pace and nonlinear deliberations may aggravate a visitor unaccustomed to this style, but remain patient. Moments of silence may be part of this tactic or your potential business partners may truly need this time to make a decision. Use the pauses to plan your next steps.
Mastering the art of small talk in each culture takes time and experience. Your best bet is to become familiar with the history of your target market, and brush up on universally acceptable subjects – music, literature, and World Cup soccer.