Ask just about anyone and they’ll say business success is based in large part on relationships. And human connections, we all know, generally start with small talk.

Before you can sign a lucrative contract, become fast friends or decide to join forces in business, you nearly always ask about the weather, the trip in to the meeting, or some similar chit chat. It’s casual but it’s also essential -- and for some people it’s also difficult.  So how much more difficult must small talk be if you’re trying to connect with a colleague from a very different culture?

If you’re traveling abroad for your business, you’re going to need to expand your small talk skills to take into account foreign attitudes towards appropriate topics and conversational rhythms. It can seem intimidating -- especially given how many different cultures you could conceivably end up doing business with -- but according to an interesting recent post on Management Issues from author and expert on cultural intelligence David Livermore, simply monitoring four key areas of cultural difference should help ensure smooth small talk with business partners, no matter where in the world they come from.


For Americans silence is often awkward. Not so in many other cultures, writes Livermore, who says many folks around the world view lulls in the conversation as productive time for reflection or a demonstration of your comfort with the other person. To avoid panicking whenever there are a few quiet seconds he recommends you “anticipate the meaning of ‘silence’ for your interactions.” In other words, don’t assume the other party hates silence. Carefully gauge their comfort level with pauses in the small talk.

Social Distance

"In egalitarian cultures, an administrative assistant asking a visiting executive about his weekend is simply viewed as warm and friendly. But in a more hierarchical culture, most people prefer that authority figures remain socially distant from subordinates and vise versa," warns Livermore, who says you should look around to get a feeling for what sort of social distance your chit chat partner is likely to prefer.

Family vs. Work

What should you talk about? For some cultures like ours, professional topics are the go-to opener for small talk. But that’s not universal. "In many Western cultures, asking ‘What do you do?’ is the most comfortable way to begin talking with a stranger. But in many other cultures, a discussion about one's family name and background is a better way to make connections," he writes.

Harmony vs. Debate

Appetite for conflict, like appetite for spicy foods, varies between cultures, so be as careful about starting a debate as you would be about serving a blazing hot dinner to a new acquaintance. "The norm in some cultures, such as many Germanic ones, is to have a vigorous debate about politics or even religion," Livermore writes. "In other cultures, politics and religion are taboo, particularly among new acquaintances. And in still other cultures, a harmonious interaction with limited conflict is really important."

Check out the complete post for more tips on mastering the art of international small talk. Or, if you’re more stressed about the meeting than the get-to-know-you conversation that will precede it, you may find a recent HBR Blog Network post about leading international meetings helpful.

Do you have any stories of international small talk difficulties or tips to overcome them?