Small Talk for the Global Professional

Are you making this intercultural communication mistake?

Lisa B. Marshall
3-minute read

A colleague of mine recently sent me this email.  I decided to share it with you because it illustrates a very common mistake made by global professionals.   Particularly as our interactions are becoming more and more global and we are interacting with people from many different cultures. It's a particularly important lesson for all of us.  

Here's the email: 

"I was just reading one of your newsletters from way back and came across your mention of "phatic communication."

[Lisa's note: In essence, phatic communication is small talk, and it is crucial for social creatures like us. It indicates a desire to reach out, to create a bond if none exists, or to strengthen a bond when one does exist. In short, it shows we care. And it allows for the gentle flow of light conversation into perhaps a deeper, more intimate conversation.]

I wanted to share a story. A long time ago (don't tell my husband) I had this boyfriend from Turkey who one day got super raging mad at me after I had phoned for him at his cousin's house. I didn't have a clue what had made him so mad. Really, I had no idea. 

When I was finally able to get him to tell me, it turned out that he was angry about my behavior on the phone.  He said that when I called, I hadn't talked to his cousin long enough.  He suggested that I should have engaged in about 10 minutes of phatic communication with his cousin before asking whether he was at the house and whether I could speak with him. I had no idea that any amount of phatic communication was culturally expected (let alone the this particular culture required about 10 minutes!) I was used to my typical way of communicating...(Hi. How are you?  Can I please speak with Doug). He eventually explained to be that what I did was considered to be the height of rudeness!!"

Although I didn't mention in my previous article about small talk, is it well known in the communication research that phatic communication varies across cultures in a number of respects. First the type of situations that require small talk are different, the length of the small talk at the beginning or ending of a conversation varies (as illustrated by the story), and finally the topics which are appropriate are different in different cultures.  

What does this mean for the global professional? 

If possible, talk with someone who is familiar with both cultures to better understand nuances of building rapport. I also recommend looking at the work of Erin Meyer (The Culture Map). She talks about eight scales that help us understand cultural differences. Of course, you'll want to look at all of the scales, but the scale that is directly related to phatic communication is "trusting." She explains that in some cultures (in the U.S.) people don't worry so much about trusting each other because they trust the legal system to enforce contracts. So business negotiations focus on what's practical. However, in many other countries, particularly emerging markets, personal relationships are much more important, in part because people don't trust their legal system. She categories the U.S. as a task-based country where trust is built through business-related activities versus in relationship-based countries, where trust is built slowly, over time, through sharing meals, evening drinks, and spending free time together. To see where countries lie on this continuum, you can read this article

My recommendation for you?

If you are a global professional, I highly recommend you read Erin Meyer's book, The Culture Map.  Another good book to consider is Intercultural Readiness by Ursula Brinkmann and Oscar van Weerdenburg. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.