Making Small Talk in the American Workplace

Reposting from 2011 because this topic keeps coming up in conversations with friends and colleagues from outside of the U.S.

How do you start a casual, social conversation with an American co-worker? What kinds of topics are OK/not OK to talk about? How should I answer when someone asks "how was your weekend?"

I've been hearing these questions often lately, in conversations with people from different countries who've come to work or study for a while in the U.S. The type of "small talk" that Americans have been practicing since childhood can seem strange and even a bit mysterious to people who are operating in English as a second or third language, and coming from places where this communication pattern isn't typical.

There seem to be two underlying questions behind these inquiries. What to talk about and how to do it.

First, the WHAT. What types of topics are good conversation starters? In a recent informal poll of some colleagues and students, we came up with this list of "safe" topics. Topics that most Americans would be happy to talk casually about, without taking offense or losing interest too quickly.

  • The weather: how nice/not nice it's been or will be soon, how to cope with, drive in or dress for the rain, snow/ice, heat/humidity, fill in the blank_________.

  • Recreational activities/hobbies: what they like to do outside of work, what types of activities there are to do in the area, where to do activities that interest you.

  • Shopping: best places to shop, best prices, places to find specific items.

  • Food, music, entertainment (TV, movies): what they like to eat, watch, listen to. Where to do those things in the area.

  • Sports: what they like to play or watch, what sports are popular in the area, how to join a team and participate in a sport that interests you, latest news about local sports teams.

  • School/education: where they went to school, what they studied, how the education system works in the U.S. and how that's different from or similar to your educational experience.

This list could go on, but I think that more important than the topics themselves is the HOW. The approach to engaging in casual conversations. Again, from our informal poll, here are some simple ideas for getting past those first awkward moments more smoothly:

  • Be an observer: watch how Americans engage in "small talk." Listen to what they say and how they say it. Pay attention to the types of topics they like to talk about in different situations---at the beginning of the work week, in line at the grocery store, at the fitness center, or in different scenes in movies or TV shows.

  • Ask for advice: most Americans are happy to share what they know, so asking for advice is a great way to start a conversation.

  • Prepare some simple answers in advance: if you've noticed that your co-workers always ask "how was your weekend" on Monday morning, then prepare yourself with a simple answer like "nice, I went to the dinner with some friends" or "not bad, but I can't wait for the rain to stop so we can get outside more." You may be surprised at how easily these simple answers lead to more questions and conversation, either at that moment or the next time you encounter that person in the future.

Finally, relax and enjoy. Casual conversations are important for building and maintaining good working relationships in the U.S., but it's not necessary to become a "small talk" expert.

*This article was first published on Ann Marie’s Blog in 2011

Adjusting to Home Again (Every Time)

Reposting a piece from 2011 because it is relevant for me and several new colleagues again this week. I hope you find it helpful too!

Yesterday was a "re-entry" day for me. Unpacking bags. Washing clothes. A little grocery shopping. Settling back in at home after 2 1/2 weeks away. Feeling jet-lagged, without even changing time zones.

I travel a lot, so should probably be used to this routine by now, but the challenges of re-adjusting to home still sometimes take me by surprise. The challenges can seem especially sharp when the travel experiences have been as intense and eventful as these past few weeks, which included:

  • a creativity retreat/workshop in North Carolina with 15 new friends and endless new insights,

  • an annual professional conference and board meeting in Colorado with hundreds of old and new friends and colleagues and notebooks full of new ideas, and

  • a relaxing family vacation in the California sun with some time to read, write, and begin to reflect and absorb what I had learned during the previous weeks.

Three very different experiences, in very different places, with very different people and opportunities to escape from my normal day-to-day reality in very different ways. No wonder it was a little tricky to adjust back to real life at home.

Luckily some helpful advice was waiting for me this morning, among the many e-mails that have been piling up in my in-box. The note was from IES Abroad, to the parents of students who, like our daughter, will be returning soon from studying overseas for a semester or two.  The e-mail, and the accompanying list of "10 Re-Entry Challenges", was intended to help us understand what our students might experience when they get home, so we can help them re-adjust to life in the U.S.

As I read through the descriptions of potential challenges (originally compiled by Professor Bruce La Brack, now retired from the University of the Pacific), I realized that they sounded very familiar and relevant. Not only did they remind me of our experience returning to the U.S. 15 years ago, after 3 1/2 years in Europe, but some of them also easily apply to my situation today:

  • a little bit of boredom, after weeks of newness and stimulating experiences,

  • difficulty explaining the experiences to people who "weren't there,"

  • some reverse "homesickness" for the people, places and things I grew accustomed to, even in a few short days in different places.

But it's the final two challenges in this list that stood out most glaringly to me:

#9. Inability to apply new knowledge and skills: "Many returnees are frustrated by the lack of opportunity to apply newly gained social, linguistic, and practical coping skills that appear unnecessary or irrelevant..."

#10. Loss/compartmentalization of experience: "Being home, coupled with the pressures of job, family, and friends, often combine to make returning students worry that somehow they will "lose" the experience, that it will become compartmentalized like souvenirs or photo albums..."

I realized that these two challenges are exactly the ones that concern me most as I adjust to being home, and settling back in to a more normal routine this week.

Whether it's a semester abroad, a 3 1/2 year international assignment, or a 2 1/2 week business/leisure trip, the potential to "lose" the experience, to let the new skills and relationships fade away, is always there. It's humbling to admit how many times I've let that happen to some degree, despite the best intentions.

So, I'll adapt some of Dr. La Brack's advice this week and actively work to maintain some of the contacts I've made with new people, to practice some new skills (especially writing more), and look for ways to remember and build on the hard work and experiences of these past few weeks.

Maybe I'll even be better prepared to offer some useful advice to our daughter when she gets home.

This article first appeared on Ann Marie’s Blog in April, 2011

How do you like your e-mails?

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Short, sweet, direct + to the point?

Warm and friendly, opening with a nice greeting and closing with a cheery good-bye?

Or long, detailed, and packed full of data, facts and other useful information?

Chances are that the way you typically write and like to receive e-mails is closely related to your individual personality style and, in the case of business correspondence, the culture of the organization in which you work. Which can be fine if you're only corresponding within your own organization with people who share your personality style preferences.

What happens, though, when you have to communicate with someone who doesn't share your preferences or cultural context? Someone in a different part of the organization, with a different personality style, or someone working in a different country who speaks a different native language? What do you do in those cases to make sure that your e-mail message is received and understood in the way you intended?

I think that the same basic principles that apply to good marketing and effective presentations are useful here too:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Put yourself in their "shoes" and imagine the context in which they may be reading your e-mail: on their Blackberry while walking to a meeting, at their desk as the 10th in a pile of 100 messages in their in-box, or at home after their kids have gone to bed. 
  3. Clarify what you want them to do in response to your e-mail.
  4. Write to connect with them: considering their perspective, speaking in language that they understand, and addressing their needs.
  5. Clearly articulate what you need from them in response and when you need it and why (e.g. what's in it for them).

If you're communicating with someone who speaks a different language, then eliminating extra words, avoiding slang, and using visual cues (bullet points, numbers, or colorful, bold type) can all be helpful.

If you're communicating with someone you know well, a friendly greeting may be just the right way to start your e-mail.

Sometimes a very brief, urgent, direct message is absolutely the way to go.

There's no magic formula for the perfect e-mail, especially when you're communicating across cultures, time zones and language barriers, but starting from the recipient's point of view will almost always increase the odds that your intended message will be received and understood.

This article was first published on Ann Marie's Blog in 2011

Ugly American? Not Me!

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"I am not a typical ugly American!"

When I was much younger, I really believed this statement and was eager to prove it. I wanted to distance myself from the stereotype of the loud, brash, pushy American tourist and blend in to the cultures in the countries I was lucky enough to visit. I tried hard to pay attention to my surroundings, watch and listen before speaking, respect the local traditions, try the foods, and make friends with the people.

During my first trip to France, I remember a beautiful sunny day in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. Our quiet lunch was suddenly interrupted by someone speaking English with a strong mid-western-U.S. accent, loudly criticizing French people. When I turned and saw a man in a bright orange sweatshirt from a U.S. university, my negative opinion of him was solidified. I was embarrassed to be seen as an American, especially in the vicinity of such a fine example of an ugly one, and decided to try to blend in and act as French as possible for the rest of the trip.

For the next few years I was full of good intentions and really thought that those, along with my conscious efforts to adapt, would be enough to carry me successfully through many adventures and business situations in foreign countries.

Little did I know then, how little I really knew. Or how very American I really am.

It wasn't until we moved to The Netherlands, to live and work for three years, that I started to catch some hints about the depth of my ignorance, and the many ways in which I was so easily and obviously identifiable as a U.S.-American to my European colleagues and neighbors. Over the years, helpful friends pointed out strange things that we Americans did, like:

  • smiling and saying "hello" to people we passed on the sidewalks
  • working from home occasionally in the evenings, or at the office on weekends, or postponing vacations if an important business meeting came up.
  • putting bike helmets on our kids and even wearing them ourselves just to run errands in the neighborhood
  • asking for "special preparations" or substitutions of menu items in restaurants
  • inviting friends to our homes for dinner, and then asking them to bring a dish to share or a bottle of wine, and then offering them a tour of the entire home, including private spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms!
  • and much, much more...

I couldn't argue with their observations. I did all of these things. They came naturally to me, and I had never realized that they might be interpreted as different or strange when viewed through a different cultural lens. I started to think that maybe I was really more of a typical American than I had wanted to admit before.

My illusions were shattered for good when I read an article by L. Robert Kohls, The Values Americans Live By, during my first semester studying for a masters degree in Intercultural Relations. Suddenly many of the beliefs that drove my behavior, and that I thought were somehow uniquely mine, were spelled out in black and white, in a 14-page article, as typical mainstream U.S. American Values.

Being informal. Taking initiative. Loving competition. Treating people as equals. Being seen, and seeing myself, as a unique individual. Being optimistic and action-oriented.  

These all rang true and I could no longer deny it. Compared to people from most other cultures in the world, my values are more aligned than not with mainstream U.S. values.

I don't mind any more being seen as a typical American. This is who I am and these values are the starting point and foundation for everything I do.

But I'll still always try to avoid the ugly part.

*This article was originally published on Ann Marie's Blog in 2011

Ready to lead your high-performing team to new levels? Call a Time Out!

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In your fast-paced role as a leader of a high-performing team, it may be hard to imagine that one of the secrets to achieving breakthrough team performance at work can be found in the pages of a typical sports coaches’ playbook:  Call a Team Time Out.

A conscious, focused, well-structured team time out includes four simple steps:

1 – Change the CONTEXT

Take people out of their normal way of operating

Whether you arrange a team lunch outside of the office, or a multi-day offsite meeting in a different city or resort location, the key is to create an experience that takes team members temporarily out of their normal work environments, routines, and roles.

When calendars are cleared and team members are allowed to focus on each other, they have the freedom to step back, get to know each other better, and imagine and practice new ways of interacting. They have time and permission to relax, have fun, and open up to deeper connections with each other and creative solutions for their work together.

2 – Expand COMPETENCE

Introduce relevant new skills and information

Smart, capable, accomplished people love to learn. The right information or new skills at the right time can be the catalyst that energizes a group and allows them to see new ways to reach and stretch further.

The solution to the challenges most teams face is not to overwhelm them with new information. The secret lies in finding the specific skills or key information that will help them do more with what they already have, or resolve specific challenges that are keeping them from doing their best work together.

3 – Facilitate COLLABORATION

Create opportunities for meaningful connections and conversations

When people have relaxed time in informal settings to deepen their connections, that’s often when they start to spontaneously collaborate, share ideas back and forth, and generate new solutions to existing challenges.

Create opportunities for authentic conversations that go way beyond small talk and surface niceties.  Invite people to talk about what’s important to them, what they bring and hope to contribute to the team. Encourage them to hear and appreciate their team members, to see clearly what they share in common and discover each other’s unique talents, perspectives and potential.

4 – Invite COMMITMENT

Create new clarity and invite commitment to what’s next

Done well, these first three steps lead to new clarity and commitment among team members. This is the best insurance that your investment in time, money, and energy will pay off, and the learning will be carried forward.

Team members see and appreciate their collective strengths and are inspired to use them to move forward together to accomplish more than ever before. They are each able to identify and clearly articulate their commitment to the future success of the team. They see a clear path forward and know what the must each do to achieve breakthrough performance.

*This article was originally published on Ann Marie's Blog in 2016.

Feedback, criticism and motivation across cultures

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As a leader of a culturally-diverse team, have you ever been surprised by the reaction of a team member to your well-intended feedback?

For example:

  • Have your direct, constructive suggestions for improvement ever caused strong, negative reactions from subordinates, or actually shut down progress on a project?
  • Has your tendency to wrap criticism in compliments ever caused confusion, or led to the misperception by the recipient that "everything is all right?"
  • Has your belief that "no news is good news" at work ever led to misunderstandings between you and team members who are waiting to hear your positive feedback about their work?
  • Has your public praise of an individual's work ever been met with a less positive reaction than you expected?

Positive feedback and constructive criticism can be powerful tools to inspire and motivate team members to achieve better performance.

They can also backfire, and do more harm than good, when we neglect to take into account the personality style preferences and cultural backgrounds of the people in our team.

Several years ago, some of my Dutch colleagues told me - in their typically direct way - that my tendency to offer almost constant positive praise made me seem soft as a manager. They resisted my attempts to teach them to deliver bad news tactfully - sandwiched between compliments - saying that this approach would be perceived as fake, or even dishonest in The Netherlands. And they seemed shocked to learn that our corporate performance review process was an annual requirement, even when they were doing a great job.

Each of these small examples were big learning opportunities for me, and I'm still grateful for this blunt feedback from my Dutch colleagues. Their insights inspired me to learn more about how to effectively motivate people from different cultural backgrounds, and to share what I learn with others.

I thought of these colleagues recently while reading this article, about the "wildly different ways people give feedback around the world." The Dutch aren't represented here, but the general insights about the differences between French, German, Japanese, American, and other work cultures offer an intriguing starting point for discussions with team members from around the world.

Look at this article together, ask your team members what they agree and disagree with, and see what you can learn from each other.

You may be surprised.

I hope you'll also be inspired and motivated to achieve better performance, together.

 

* This article was first published on Ann Marie's Blog in 2016.

The English Language Advantage

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"You Americans, you have no idea how easy you have it! You get to use your native language at work every day."

This comment took me by surprise, coming from a Scandinavian co-worker with, to my ears, excellent English-language skills. I tried to argue, and he argued right back, explaining that while he had studied English in school and used it at work for many years, he still struggled sometimes to keep up in conversations with Americans, especially in meetings when we were all talking quickly and interrupting each other, or speaking in long, run-on sentences like this one.

Since that day I've come to appreciate the truth in his words. I've heard the same complaint from so many other colleagues and students, and observed the very real toll that speaking and trying to understand English all day can take. Frustration, fatigue and embarrassment are common experiences, sometimes resulting in costly business mistakes or damaged work relationships.

When given the opportunity, I try to help other native English speakers understand the advantage their language skills give them in the workplace. I encourage them to consider ways that they could adjust their approaches and expectations when communicating with colleagues who have English as their second, third or even fourth language.

Over the years a simple list of practical tips has emerged from our conversations:

  • Be aware of potential communication gaps. Pay attention!
  • Slow down. Speak at a slower pace and pause more often to listen.
  • Use common English words. Simplify your explanations.
  • Be patient, especially when people repeat themselves or ask you to repeat.
  • Invite and encourage people to speak up. Pause and wait for a reply. Don't interrupt!
  • Be aware of your use of slang, acronyms and pop culture references. Don't expect that they will be easily understood. Use them sparingly or be willing to explain/teach what they mean.
  • Provide meeting agendas and expectations in advance. Follow the agenda, create opportunities for each person to take turns speaking and summarize key points in writing.
  • Follow up one-on-one after group meetings to  check for understanding, answer questions and offer further explanations.

These are probably good suggestions for anyone with a desire to communicate effectively at work. They're especially relevant for people with the advantage, often unacknowledged or even outside of our awareness, of being able to use our native language all day long.