If you’re planning to gain recognition and build relationships in the United States of America, then you better brace yourself for a copious dose of small talk and enormous amounts of happy-clappy optimism.
The first thing may strike you in interactions with Americans is their direct approach. A random stranger will engage you in a conversation and it is perfectly normal. Or should we say, normal for Americans, since a typical Polish person may feel really awkward in such a situation because their privacy has been infringed on.
As I find my seat on a plane, I put my bag into the overhead compartment and place the phone I am charging on my lap. A woman sitting next to me asks me without any hang-ups if my charger works fine, how fast it charges the phone to 100% and how much I paid for it. And thus begins a monologue on how dysfunctional and not worth the money the charger she herself recently bought is.
Smiling, I reply concisely and politely, but I do not carry the discussion on. It’s the middle of the night, I am exhausted and I don’t feel like having enthusiastic debates on chargers or, to be quite frank, anything else.
Americans have an problem with social interactions, and that problem is their inability to handle silence.
As members of a highly individualistic culture, they perceive self-expression as very important, which can be easily observed in the course of their conversations. Each of them will express their opinion, not interrupting the other person, but leaving not an inch of empty space between statements. In her book How different are we? Spoken discourse in intercultural communication, Helen Fitzgerald quotes Fons Trompenars, a Dutch organisational theorist and an accomplished author of many books on corporate management in multicultural environments. Trompens describes 3 communicational styles of speaking in social interactions which have been identified by linguists: Latino, Oriental and Anglo style.
In the Anglo style, which is predominant in the US culture, people speak in turns, although without noticeable breaks between statements. It is considered impolite to butt in, while silence is considered a failure resulting from communicational ineptitude. When the interlocutor does not share the enthusiasm, is reluctant to sustain the conversation, or shows no interest in talking about the so-called weather or basically nothing, he is considered dull and bland. “No personality” is a slander that Americans throw at anyone who won’t engage in a conversation with a wide smile, raised voice and joy. In Americans’ eyes, if you don’t follow their communication style, you have no personality and you simply don’t exist.
It is essential to realise this fact because the communication style which Americans find so natural and desirable tends to be rather artificial and annoying for Europeans, and therefore for Polish people as well.
I hate to generalise, but it can be safely assumed that Americans who haven’t been exposed to other cultures, haven’t functioned in differing environments or simply haven’t really traveled abroad, will inevitably project their own cultural patterns onto us in their judgments. It is noticeable in their reactions as they are visiting Poland. Asked about their impressions, they reply that people there are gloomy, reserved and negative. This is caused by differences in values that the respective nations cultivate. In case of USA, these values are individualism and friendliness. However, few Polish people consider being perceived as friendly at first encounter as anything of importance. What Poles value more is sincerity and genuine relationships – and the fact that it takes a lot of time to form such relationships makes them all the more genuine and deep. That’s the reason why Polish people see Americans as nice, but superficial and fake. They lack depth – a Pole will usually sum up.
In American cultural standards, communication skills are the top social competence, especially for individuals who are willing to build relations with people there and successfully function in the USA. If you prefer to adhere to the cultural norms from your country of origin, you won’t get too far in the United States. In fact, you will be doomed to social exclusion and isolation. Americans will never recognise you as a remarkably educated and experienced professional (be it a lawyer or an engineer) with outstanding achievements in your field and a unique personality should you not comply to the ‘proper’ conduct of interacting, sharing enthusiasm and having a conversation. You will become invisible for US citizens, they won’t remember you, they won’t talk to you and consequently, you will achieve nothing – after all, humans are social creatures by nature.
How to properly communicate in line with American cultural scripts?
Americans deem silence an enemy. Silence makes them embarrassed, which is why they invented the small talk, or at least have mastered it to perfection. It is generally a short, introductory conversation, very often casual, and its aim is to fill up the embarrassment of silence and to make social bonds.
Let’s consider 5 ways of engaging in small talk:
1. Standard greetings
‘How are you?’, ‘How are you doing?’, ‘How is your day going?’
These are conversation openers and they mean nothing more than: Hello, I recognise your presence.
No matter how you feel, the right answer is a short: ‘Fine, thanks, yourself?’, or ‘I am good, how about you?’.
When talking to Americans, we should by no means apply our own Polish communication code, where this sort of questions is treated as genuine interest in the other person’s wellbeing or their current life situation. Americans may feel confounded when you start talking e.g. about your struggle with exams or hardships in the family. Polish people will rather focus on the negative aspects of current events, the rest is ignored, because when all is fine and dandy, Poles don’t feel the urge to report it, unless of course they want to brag.
2. Commenting on the surroundings
‘What a beautiful weather we’ve got today’, ‘It’s a magnificent view, isn’t it?’ or ‘The air smells lovely today’.
For Polish people, but also for all other Europeans and people raised in high context cultures, verbalising absolutely everything within our eyes’ reach might seem, to say the least, somewhat ridiculous. For Americans, it is a norm.
‘Your dress is gorgeous’, ‘I love your suit’ – to which we will hear a reply such as: ‘Thank you for noticing’, or ‘Thank you, I am glad you like it’. Exchange of compliments and courtesy perfectly fits into the American notion of small talk.
4. Open questions
‘How long have you been working here?’ ‘How did you and the host meet?’ ‘What are your plans for this summer holiday?’ ‘What would you recommend me to see while visiting …’ . One other typical question raised by Americans is ‘What do you do for living?’ – many cultures consider this question offensive, because it is believed to be a very private one, and therefore could infringe on a person’s privacy.
5. Commenting on current events and affairs
‘Did you see the game yesterday? What do you think about it?’ ‘Have you heard of the Honolulu fire? Three people are believed to have died. It’s terrible!’
Small talk is about sustaining a conversation which is supposed to be light, nice and pleasant. Such a skill is definitely worth developing, because not only will it help you to effectively build relations with Americans – through those seemingly casual conversations you will also gain a better insight into people and the realities they live in.