Leadership Insights: Small Talk, Big Differences

“Hey how’s it going?” “How are you?”
“Hi, pretty good! Looking forward to the weekend. How have you been?”
“Oh you know, keeping busy. Have a great weekend!”
“You too!”

Whether in passing greetings like the scene above, introductions at a party, or chatting with colleagues at the start of a meeting, making “small talk” is a ritual of U.S. American culture. Small talk includes conversation about a wide range of topics viewed as non-controversial in U.S. culture, such as leisure activities, “How was your weekend?” the weather, “It’s a beautiful day isn’t it?” and sports, “Did you see the game last night?”. For many international students, small talk can be confusing, challenging, or even exasperating—“What’s the point?” or “What am I supposed to say?” and, “Why do they say ‘how are you’ but they don’t stop to listen to the answer?

So why do people in the U.S. make small talk? Small talk is a way of “breaking the ice” in social interactions. Silence is often viewed as awkward or uncomfortable in U.S. American culture, so small talk fills the space and helps people to feel more at ease. In a professional context, it helps establish rapport before diving into a meeting’s essential content. The practice of small talk is one characteristic of what has been described as a “peachy” culture in the United States.  Like a peach, U.S. American culture can be soft and fuzzy on the outside but with a hard pit inside. Many people in the U.S. may be initially very friendly—smiling and chatting freely—but then be quite protective of their private lives. For example, an international student could have an engaging conversation with a U.S. American who says cheerfully “We should hang out sometime!” but then fails to follow up to make concrete plans. And while small talk flows freely, going deeper can be tough; for example, some I-House residents have said they are surprised U.S. American students do not ask more in-depth questions about their home country or culture. Moreover, certain topics are off limits unless people are very close—ask a question like “How much money do you make?” and you’ve hit the private pit of U.S. culture.

This is in contrast to “coconut” cultures that are hard on the outside but with a soft fleshy inner core. Countries like China and Russia have been likened to coconuts—people may initially be less expressive, smiley, etc. It may take time to build a relationship and break into people’s in-group, but once you break through, the relationship will likely be deep and long-lasting. Whereas in the U.S. there is often a divide between the personal and professional lives, in a coconut culture like China once you crack the shell you are likely to have close friendships even with professional colleagues.

Describing cultures as peaches or coconuts is to generalize about cultural patterns and to use an imperfect metaphor. Not everyone within a national culture will follow these patterns, and to assume all U.S. Americans are peachy is to make a stereotype. It is also important to keep in mind that culture is much more than our national culture (the country we come from). Culture is formed by many layers of identity including gender, age, ethnicity, religious affiliation, region/place, academic background, organizational affiliation, and more, and different subcultures have different communication preferences. That said, there are research-backed patterns across national cultures, and while stereotypes are never helpful, generalizations can be useful for understanding dominant patterns and cracking the communication code when crossing cultures.

Living at I-House provides an opportunity to recognize these cultural patterns and use this awareness both to build lasting friendships with people from all over the world and to gain intercultural leadership skills for working effectively in diverse contexts. Intercultural leadership starts with self-awareness, understanding our own habits and how they have been shaped by our cultural background. The human brain’s tendency in the face of cultural difference is to evaluate unfamiliar behaviors as a character flaw. For example, from a coconut perspective the peachiness of U.S. American culture may feel superficial or hypocritical, and for a peachy person, coconut culture may appear cold or arrogant. But if you can understand that these behaviors are influenced by history, values, and different notions of what’s normal in people’s home countries, then you will be on the path to becoming an intercultural leader. In practice, this means interrupting the brain’s instinct to make snap judgements and looking deeper to understand the values driving people’s behavior. For example, from a U.S. American perspective, peachy small talk can be understood as stemming from a value for politeness, privacy, efficiency, and individualism. In contrast, coconut behavior reflects a strong value for authenticity and loyalty.

Effective intercultural leaders recognize that there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” communication style—it’s no better to be a peach or a coconut—but successful communication follows different patterns among different places and groups because of different values. Rather than judging or resisting unfamiliar communication styles, intercultural leaders are willing to try new approaches to build bridges across cultural differences, including shifting conversational style to build rapport in culturally appropriate ways. So here are a few ways you can turn the coconut/peach challenge into an opportunity to communicate effectively with people from all over the world during your time at I-House:

Top 3 tips for coconuts communicating with those who have a peach culture (U.S.)

  • Be prepared to answer small talk questions with “headlines” rather than in-depth responses: “My trip was great. I toured the city and visited museums, and the food was incredible.
  • Ask questions that spark easy conversation: “Have you read any good books/seen any good movies lately?” “What kind of food do you like to eat?
  • Spend some energy getting to know local trends so you can bring these topics up in conversation, i.e. “Did you see the Warriors game?

Top 3 tips for peaches communicating with coconuts

  • Practice observation to learn which questions and topics of conversation are considered appropriate. Observe what times and places it’s acceptable to build personal connections (e.g. building an effective working relationship may require socializing outside of work hours).
  • Wait to ask personal questions until others bring up the topic themselves.
  • Adjust expectations for how long it might take to establish a relationship. Be patient with relationships and invest time in building trust and rapport.

And whether you are a peach or a coconut, when conversation feels confusing or frustrating, notice when you are interpreting people’s behavior by your own cultural values. Take a step back, try to suspend judgement, and put on the lenses that allow you to see from another cultural perspective.


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