The big deal about 'small talk'

But there’s nothing superficial about the role small talk plays in American professional culture.

Morning commuters are seen outside the New York Stock Exchange. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Morning commuters are seen outside the New York Stock Exchange.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
You have just relocated from Israel to Silicon Valley to work in the American subsidiary of your Israeli organization. In the elevator, you overhear a conversation between the VP of your company and one of the junior managers.
“So what’s your Super Bowl prediction? You’re a ‘Niners fan, right?” You think to yourself, ‘What a superficial and boring conversation! He’s clearly just “smearing” the VP.
But there’s nothing superficial about the role small talk plays in American professional culture. People from other countries are often surprised at how important small talk is in the US and how easily people engage in small talk across an organization’s hierarchy. You may be a very talented software engineer, but in Israel you never needed to converse on mundbusiane issues with your co-workers or superiors. In the US, however, your chances for progress and climbing up the corporate ladder depend, in large part, on your ability to build and maintain positive relationships with people at work – and small talk has a lot to do with that.
As an Israeli, small talk in America sometimes feels strange and often too personal.
You are minding your own business in line at the bank and someone you don’t know starts to talk about the weather. Before you know it, she complains to you about the traffic she had to deal with coming to work and how she is going through a nasty divorce.
Hey – do we know each other? Is there a purpose to this conversation? Israelis do engage in small talk, but it’s on a different level. In Israel, it’s all about building relationships to create trust and a collaborative framework for doing business, and as many people know each other or know someone in common, the conversation will usually continue on a deeper level. Small talk is not in our DNA. For many Israelis who are used to diving straight into a tachles conversation, American-style small talk seems irrelevant and inefficient, kind of like a bland appetizer before the sumptuous main meal.
The purpose of small talk is to be “small” and light, but when you are not used to the parameters small talk covers, you can easily fall into the “How are you?” trap: The notorious “How are you?” or it’s cousin “How’s it going?” question is sometimes perceived as not only superficial but also insulting. In Israel, when you ask someone how she is, genuine interest is implied. But in the US, if someone you don’t know well asks you how you are, it suggests questionable interest, and as these questions are often asked while preparing coffee in the lunchroom, the answer will most likely be a trite, “Fine, and you?” Small talk is an essential part of the American communication pattern and an important ice-breaker. When searching for a job, the ability to make effective small talk is essential for creating a quick sense of rapport with potential employers.
An Israeli marketing specialist was in his final rounds of interviews, waiting to meet the VP marketing of a large American organization. As he was sitting in the corridor waiting to be called in, a woman passed by and asked: “How are you this morning?” He answered in his usual blunt manner. “Fine.” A few minutes later he was asked to enter the interviewer’s office and guess who was sitting behind the desk? He did not get the job mainly because in the eyes of a potential employer, it is crucial to feel that they can trust you, like you and want to work with you. To that end, the ability to forge connections and relationships through small talk is a critical tool for achieving this purpose.
Working in an American organization, small talk is essential to bond with colleagues, create a positive relationship with your boss, and win the trust and respect of clients, suppliers, and people in your extended professional network.
Contrary to what everyone thinks, small talk is not about the topic. It’s about how you discuss that topic. You can take any topic and turn it into an ice-breaker and make it an engaging topic. All you need is to find a common interest and learn to treat small talk as an investment in your future relationships.
Many Israelis don’t believe that they have the skills for making small talk, but you don’t need to mimic the Americans, as it might come across as inauthentic. Instead, create your own version of American-style small talk.
Don’t discuss baseball if you don’t know an inning from a double play.
Learn the topics, the tone of voice they use and their style of verbal and non-verbal communication. Then develop your own personal version and use only topics that you feel comfortable and knowledgeable discussing.
When making small talk, remember to be mindful of the taboo subjects in American culture. Avoid discussing religion, racism, abortion, sexual preferences, politics or criticizing the government. You never know where someone stands on these issues and it’s better to have a stronger relationship in place before delving into such sensitive topics. Lastly, money – starting with how much one paid for certain things to how much money they make – is not a topic to be discussed at a small-talk level.
So, the next time someone asks you what you think about the weather, don’t think of it as an imposition.
See it as an opportunity! Use small talk just like Americans do – to build and establish connections and to set the stage for potential new business relationships.
The writer is the founder and partner in TrainingCQ, specializing in cross-cultural consultancy with more than 20 years of experience in culturally related issues.
She is a leading expert on US, Israeli and global business culture and facilitates workshops and lectures on cross-cultural understanding of working and living cross-border. Arona has spearheaded in Israel a “Cultural Intelligence” training model whereby she provides strategically focused training for individuals and organizations to navigate successfully in global business settings.