Small Talk or Straight to Business?

Imagine two German business visitors. They are in the UK for a business meeting and arrive ten minutes before their scheduled meeting at the offices. The meeting is due to start at 9am and finish at 10.30am and they come well prepared. The secretary welcomes them and offers some tea or coffee. They remain at reception until one of their hosts arrives, shakes hands and takes them through to the meeting room. They chat a little bit about their trip. Another colleague arrives as he got stuck in traffic on the way into work. They talk a little bit more about travelling, the weather on the day, where they last met and about joint acquaintances. At 9.30am, the formal part of the meeting begins ….

The German visitors had not planned in such a delay. They had originally prepared for a presentation with questions & answers to fill the 90 minutes of the meeting. Now they needed to rethink what was most important and drop some of the material and focus on the essentials. Some less important information was left with the client as part of the hand-outs. The two German visitors decide that next time they need to leave some time for small talk and not get caught out wrong footed again.

In a British subsidiary of a German company, the accountant works flat out for over a week on a major finance project for the management. Colleagues from other departments help out as it’s a time critical work. She receives an email from her German counterpart, simply saying that they cross-referenced certain figures and those highlighted are unclear and are to be checked. Written in the present tense, the email contains no acknowledgement that the British accountant may currently be under pressure nor does the German colleague offer any potential time window for the response.

People’s own preferences, the type of organisation you work in, or customs derived from your national culture can all impact how people communicate and what information they share at work. Do they get straight down to business to effectively use their limited time and focus on the task ahead? Or are they trying to get to know their counterparts better to build up relationships, goodwill and trust?

The German accountant focused on what she needed to communicate. She got her message clearly across. Her intention was not to put pressure on her colleague or be impolite – she just advised a status. Her British colleague felt that she was not appreciating the immense pressure her team was under and was unclear when her colleague needed the information by and reacted therefore initially defensively.

Direct communicators may want to re-read their email before sending it off to more implicit and relationship focused colleagues. Start off with your core message, then think of it as a sandwich and add some ‘niceties’ at the top and bottom. On the other hand, relationship focused people may sometimes cut down the length of their communication to focus on the essentials and communicate this without ambiguity. Otherwise, their direct counterpart may not be clear what is expected of them as the message may get lost in the ‘small talk’.

A direct American, who had previously successfully worked in Germany, is now extremely frustrated with, what he perceives, lack of focus in the UK. He tries to avoid the ‘time-wasting chit chat’ before meetings by simply arriving ten or fifteen minutes late when the actual business part starts. However, he misses out on building very important relationships with his British colleagues who often use small talk and informal meetings to clarify topics, sound people out and influence decision makers.

In a North East manufacturing company, the first hour of each Monday was dedicated to a rather work unrelated ‘meeting’ – the previous weekend’s football results. And considering the popularity of football hospitality, I assume football talk must considerably contribute to the bottom line in many companies around the globe.

When engaging in this ‘small talk’ in the meeting room, the evening dinner, the airport or the hospitality suite – the international business traveller may need to do some homework. How did the local/national team play last? What’s going on in the country that people may talk about? The impending Football World Cup in Brazil may not mean that much to an American who doesn’t follow soccer. Questions or comments about age, weight, money or marital status may not go down well in some countries, but are acceptable in others. What kind of humour is seen as funny and what’s unacceptable? And beware of those tv references – Butler James & Miss Sophie, Don Camillo & Peppone or Maya the Bee may be well-known characters in Germany, while Germans may struggle with references to Dr Who, Ant & Dec or the Magic Roundabout.

And even when visiting just one ‘country’, communication style and small talk topics may vary from region to region. The English broadcaster and journalist Simon Hoggart put it like that: “In Washington the first thing people tell you is what their job is. In Los Angeles you learn their star sign. In Houston you’re told how rich they are. And in New York they tell you what their rent is.”