November 16, 2011

A big fuss about small talk

I think small talk has been around as long as humans have. The only difference between centuries ago and now is that we’ve given it a name. But I can well imagine the kings of old having to entertain royalty from other countries, nervously trying to fill those uncomfortable silences with comments like, “So, what do you think about the weather?”… But today, I think it’s taken on an entirely different level of importance. I recently read that the success of a pitch depends largely on the first 5 to 10 minutes of the meeting. Guess what happens during these precious few minutes? Small talk! The article went on to say, that the moment the potential new client feels relaxed and comfortable in a conversation that flows seamlessly from the beginning, the more likely they are to sign on the dotted line at the end. However, this was an English article written by an American. And since I’ve been living and working in Germany, I’ve realized that over here, the dynamic of small talk is often somewhat different. So here are a couple of examples I’ve come across. I hope they shed some light on a few unexplained awkward moments.

Business first

True to the character of most Germans, it makes a lot more sense to take care of business before pleasure. In some cases this would actually mean jumping right into the heart of the meeting, straight after saying hello. Only after all the important things have been discussed will they find it natural to sit back, relax and talk about the weather (or their favourite football team). It comes as no surprise then that this single difference could lead to some uncomfortable meetings. Imagine the look on a German’s face, when 20 minutes after commencing with the meeting, the English are still talking about the weather. In fact, Germans could even come across as rude or irritated at this point, while the English are clueless as to why. Well, now you know!

Pleasantries later

This is not only the case during meetings, because as we know, small talk, or exchanging pleasantries, is a part of our daily lives at the office too. And once again, Germans tend to have a different way of going about this. Let me explain: When I come into the office in the morning, the first thing I do is greet my colleagues and ask them how they’re doing (fully expecting a lengthy answer and some lovely morning chatter). Keep in mind that all my colleagues are German. The first few mornings, I was met by a quizzical look on their faces and a short “Thank-you” as a response. Huh? Thereafter, they simply carried on working. This made absolute no sense to me, but being the persistent type, I just kept on doing it every morning. Until I spotted them giving each other a wink, just as I entered the office, and giggling to themselves before I even I had the chance to ask them how they were doing. Totally amused, I finally asked them about their strange behaviour. Equally amused, they went on to explain that their working culture is a bit different. In the mornings, you simply come to work and start working. Only after a few hours have passed, and you’ve scratched some to-do’s off your list, would you engage your colleagues in small talk.

And then I got it. Germans are often perceived as a rude or grumpy sort of people. But guess what, I don’t think they are. They simply take a different approach. And when I think about it, it’s not necessarily a bad approach. In fact, it’s often the more logical one. And believe me, when you catch them at the right time, they can engage in small talk like there’s no tomorrow. It’s all about timing. And about learning to understand where the other person comes from (literally and figuratively speaking).

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