27 oktober 2011

How to overcome the small talk barrier

Last week I was on a trip to London and I was struck by how true one stereotype is. Standing in the bus queue, perfect strangers would start talking to each other to pass the time. In shops, staff were friendly and would chit-chat about nothing just to chew the fat. The stereotype about the small-talking Brit is true - even in the capital city.

There is no denying that small talking is a really important element of life and for some cultures it is much more important than for others. And this often carries over into the world of business. For many cultures, small talk in business is the way to get things done. In other words, small talk is BIG, important talk.

Although many Swedish people are aware of this in theory, putting it into practice isn’t always that easy! I receive many, many questions saying, ‘I know it’s really important, but I still feel really nervous or stupid when I am expected to small talk with visitors in English or when I'm at an international conference. How do I actually do it?’ In other words, how do we overcome the small talk barrier?

Sometimes it seems that we don’t want to initiate conversation unless we have something useful or funny to say. However, the first thing to remember is that the purpose of small talk in business situations is to get the conversation going and involve the other person. When we realise this, we understand that nothing is too inane or uninteresting to say. We should also bear in mind that we are in this situation together with another person, and they might be feeling just as uncomfortable or insecure as we are.

Overcoming the small talk barrier is quite simple if you follow these few simple tips:

What to talk about?
Option 1: The person themselves (eg ‘I understand you work as a Clinical Research Officer. How long have you been doing that?’)
Option 2: The situation and location (eg ‘Have you been to Stockholm Waterfront before?’)

How to kick off the conversation?
Option 1: Pose a question (eg ‘What do you think of the art exhibition here in the head office?’)
Option 2: Offer an opinion (eg ‘I think this seminar is going to be very interesting.’)
Option 3: State a fact (eg ‘There’s always a lot of traffic on the motorway from Malmö.’)

But which is the most effective way? In my experience, it is always best to ask a question that requires an answer. In this way, we involve the other person more than if we simply offer an opinion. Asking a question that requires the other person to give their opinion is an especially useful way to increase another person’s involvement and interest in the conversation.

So, overcoming the small talk barrier isn’t so difficult if you think about these simple tips. And remember, in business with your international colleagues, customers and visitors, small talk is not a threat – it’s an opportunity!

Wouldn’t you agree?

Neil S

14 oktober 2011

What Spaniards think of Swedes

I was recently running a workshop in Madrid and took the opoprtunity on a lunch break to ask some of the participants what their perception of the Swedes is. Since they work for an international Swedish company, I thought they might have a valuable insight that could help me in my work as a cultural diversity trainer.

Upon receiving my question, they immediately boomeranged me with a question back. Did I mean Sweden or did I mean Swedes? Both, I said.

They thought about it and then said in a unanimous voice,

'Sweden is a very modern country. One of the world's richest. The people there have everything. They are happy and healthy and secure.'

What about Swedes themselves then? I asked.

Again some thought.

'They're very nice. Very polite. But I don't understand why they have to pretend to be interested in what everybody thinks when they make a decision. It just wastes time, and they don't really mean it anyway.'

Neil S