Working abroad? Beware the “small talk” trap

Working abroad? Beware the small talk trapThe business press is rife with horror stories about the disastrous results of intercultural miscommunication. Even when they speak the local language, expat employees are often frustrated by their inability to understand and be understood in a foreign corporate environment. I know — it happened to me.

When I worked in Singapore, I ran headlong into a clash of cultures with a colleague that left me bewildered and uncomfortable. Oddly enough, it wasn’t our work-related discussions that caused the problem — it was the small talk.

Small talk rules don’t cross cultures

The office water cooler has long been the symbolic social hub of the workplace. Shooting the breeze with co-workers is a good thing: it allows us to take a little breather from the stresses of the job while strengthening bonds between employees. As long as everyone gets along, this casual small talk can lead to a more relaxed and productive atmosphere.

In a multicultural workforce, however, the players’ ideas of what topics are appropriate might not be in sync. This is exactly what happened between Betty and me.

Betty was a Chinese Singaporean who sat at the desk next to mine in a large open-concept office. She seemed very nice: soft-spoken, polite, and always smiling. The first time we chatted, I followed the unspoken rules of Canadian small talk by commenting on the weather and asking how her weekend was.

I was horrified to be asked in return how much rent I was paying, how big my condo was, and how much money my husband made — topics I wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing with my best friend, let alone a co-worker I’d just met. Feeling a bit like Goldilocks, I smiled tightly and managed to choke out that the rent was too high, the condo was too small, and my husband’s salary was just right.

Betty wasn’t the only local I encountered who seemed to be obsessed with money. In fact, one of the biggest shocks about life in Singapore was the pervasive drive to acquire luxury goods. I often heard Singaporeans discussing the importance of the “4 C’s”: cash, condo, car, and club. Status markers like expensive clothes, designer handbags, and the latest electronic gadgets were coveted and flaunted.

Let me tell you, I had a fairly modest upbringing and nothing in my life up to that point had prepared me for living in such a blatantly unapologetic money culture. Or for the probing questions that sometimes go along with it.

Cultural assumptions are the death knell of communication

When Betty asked me how much rent I was paying, my knee-jerk reaction was that she was being rude. Despite having lived in Asia for two years by then, I was still minimizing the differences between our cultures; I’d accepted the superficial variations in customs and food, but hadn’t dug below the surface to examine the values and behaviours that make Singaporeans unique.

I’d fallen into the trap of looking at each situation solely from a Canadian context, which dictates that questions about personal finances are unacceptable. It didn’t occur to me that Betty was behaving well within the boundaries of her culture’s standards of politeness.

In fact, we both made some perfectly reasonable — but incorrect — cultural assumptions. Betty assumed we shared a status orientation, so she was comfortable asking for information that would help her place me in the economic hierarchy. Meanwhile, I assumed we shared a sense of discretion about personal finances, and the understanding that discussing the topic with casual acquaintances is a big no-no.

Two useful tools: Empathy and objectivity

Any intercultural encounter will have a greater chance of success if we keep our cultural biases in check and try instead to understand the worldview of the other person. This is where I blew it. Because I was caught off-guard by what I thought of as an inappropriate question, my anxiety short-circuited my ability to empathize with Betty.

What could I have done differently? Tweaking my perspective a little and looking at the situation from her point of view would have been a good place to start. Had I taken a genuinely objective look at Betty’s behaviour, I might have said to myself,

“Look, I know that in Singapore, money matters. This is a country that’s embraced conspicuous consumption and isn’t shy about admitting it. Betty isn’t trying to be offensive; she’s just using the language of money to figure out where I fit in.”

Being aware of difference is the first step toward crossing the cultural divide, but the next step — deciding how to respond — often involves a delicate balancing act. In this case, dishing about my personal spending habits would have satisfied Betty’s needs at the expense of my own — definitely not the win-win outcome I was hoping for.

Finding a solution that would please Betty without compromising my personal ethics might have been as simple as:

“I’m still not comfortable discussing financial details, but I can help her gauge my social standing by speaking about my life in more general terms.”

Throwing in a values-based explanation for my lack of openness (“Canadians don’t like to talk about money — crazy, eh?”) might even have set the stage for a truly cross-cultural dialogue.

By the time I’d relaxed enough to work through all this in my head, the damage had already been done. Betty never did warm up to me, I’m afraid. But the experience taught me a valuable lesson about the danger of blithely projecting my own cultural biases onto someone who doesn’t share them. And I also learned — the hard way — that small talk can lead to big problems if you’re not careful.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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16 Responses to Working abroad? Beware the “small talk” trap

  1. angirach says:

    Definitely a cultural thing; good for you to be able to respond so tactfully, I might have just dissolved into a puddle at her feet.

    • Maria says:

      I waited till I got home to dissolve. 🙂 I don’t think I handled that initial conversation particularly well, but that’s what culture shock does to you — it fries your brain. I had another “moment” about a week later, when another co-worker said, out of the blue, “I admire your figure.” At least that time I managed a weak “thank you” before mental paralysis set in.

  2. Interesting post…and a part of communication we might overlook even though it’s crucial.

    I learned the hard way not to ask my American colleagues (which was completely normal in Canada) what their father or mother did for a living, which was, I admit, my standard way to find out their status. But it was considered rude because so many Americans rise from a working class parent to a much higher income level.

    I am always amused at the huge insistence, at least here in the Northeast where I live, on the huge status value of having attended an Ivy League school — yet the coyness in discussing it. “I went to school in Providence,” one said to me recently. Brown, OK? Either that ($$$$$) or RISD.

    Yet when I say U of T (which I now, which I find appalling to add, routinely explain by describing to them as the Harvard of Canada), they say “Hook ’em horns!”, the motto of the University of Texas.

    Sigh.

    • Maria says:

      I hear you. And that’s why Canadians who move to the States and US Americans who move to Canada struggle way more than they expect — everybody thinks we’re somehow “the same.” I learned at the FIGT conference (and from watching a friend crash and burn) that North Americans moving to England have the same problem. Speaking a common language is only one piece of the puzzle!

  3. bookjunkie says:

    Lived here all my life and the obsession with money is what gets me down. It’s the reason I often feel like isolating myself. It makes me feel that unless I own a property or shares I am pretty worthless. Or have a good job…key thing being ….high even in terms of status….at least a manager and such.

    The questions you were asked I have been asked as well and I find it all quite rude and invasive. That is, unless you volunteer the information yourself. Someone else asking is just not right in my book.

    Once again a really excellent post Maria..made me think. I love your culture and I think Canadians are just great.

    By the way I am quite crazy about Michael Buble….thought I’d just throw that in. Totally irrelvant…but….I love how humble, down to earth and funny he is …..besides that awesome voice and personality. I am still so upset I missed his concert in Singapore.

    • Maria says:

      I’m glad you commented, because what you say drives home the point that we have to be careful about stereotyping. You’re an outlier, I think — you think and act in ways that are a little different from the cultural norm, but you’re still Singaporean to the core. Thanks for your help (especially with the Singlish post, which will go live on Monday.)

      I never liked Michael Buble until I saw him being interviewed by the giggly twins on MTV Asia when I lived in Singapore. He was so funny, I kind of fell in love with him too!

      • bookjunkie says:

        I like that term…outlier 🙂 and I am so glad that you talked about this, even though you were very kind in your treatment of the subject.

        yeah it’s weird, when I saw Michael Buble for the very first time he came off as too cocky and then I saw him on TV again and he had probably matured a bit and he was so down to earth, funny and charming. Besides the fact that his voice and songs are amazing. Loved him on SNL with Jon Hamm.

        Oh yes I remember the giggly twins. I don’t know what I watched quite a bit of MTV back then…no more now.

  4. bookjunkie says:

    I’m tweeting this post 🙂

  5. Jaan Pehchaan says:

    Even within the same country, quite a few things contribute to what topics people are comfortable discussing and what topics are off limits.

    While I was growing up, I don’t recall talking about religion very much. For me, it was a very personal thing that one practices within the confines of one’s house. So, when someone asked me which religion (and sub-sect!) that I belonged to, it was a very awkward moment. When I went to college in another city, I saw that people freely talked about who belongs to which religion and seemed to place them in social rungs according to them!

    As kids, we never knew how much our parents were earning, and neither do our kids know the exact dollar amount. But that was just limited to my immediate family. When I visited my uncle’s place in the country after taking up my first job in the city, within the first five minutes of the conversation, he asked me my salary (which, though feeling very uncomfortable, I gave it, out of politeness and respect) and he immediately measured my life against the yardstick of country living. But the same family members were skillful enough to dodge answering even the most general questions which would give away their own personal financial information. All this happened years ago, but I still remember it.

    When the kids have tried to place themselves in the financial hierarchy, based on the type of house we lived in (townhouse) and based on the type of houses some of their friends lived in (palatial mansions) we pointed out to them that God has made us wealthy enough to be very comfortable and meet all their needs, and if they ever really needed anything, to just let us know.

    But at the same time, I feel we need a certain amount of transparency, especially while looking for a job. I have often ended up in jobs where I have learned that a co-worker doing the exact same job, with lesser experience and qualification is earning considerable more than me. It has taken me years to catch up to what I would consider a certain fairness (if at all.) Now how do you balance the need for fairness with a sense of privacy? We all end up fishing for information in vague terms and asking for broad ranges of salaries that one can expect at a certain job. Then, we make our own best guess judgements about what to ask for as compensation, and just learn to live with it.

    Things like rent and housing cost have become fairly easily accessible now a days, with most information being available in public domains. In the US, if you are living in an apartment complex, the Apartments have published rent, as part of their advertisements. and if you buy or sell a house, that information is available on the internet too, from public records.

    Privacy and Secrecy, or Fairness and Transparency?

    • Maria says:

      Your last line sums it up perfectly. And I would add that those concepts — privacy, secrecy, fairness and transparency — mean different things to different people. (Those words, along with hot-button terms such as freedom and democracy, can mean radically different things in different cultures, which is why it’s so important to resist making assumptions based on our own cultural norms.)

      Finding the right balance is tricky, and believe me when I say I’m far from having it all figured out. What I do know — at the risk of speaking in clichés — is that I have to be true to myself. The psychic discomfort I feel when I deny my own core values isn’t worth it.

      Thank you for commenting. And thanks also for the very pleasant half hour I just spent on your blog. (It would’ve been longer but I don’t understand Hindi. 🙂 )

  6. So true about the questions relating to money. I worked in Asia for almost 14 years, mainly in China / Hong Kong, and in all that time I never got used to questions asking about how big my apartment was and how much rent I paid.

    “How old are you?” is another non-taboo Asian small question, which is relatively harmless in itself except that the average Asian looks so much younger than the average Westerner of the same age.

    • Maria says:

      My husband wasn’t thrilled to be told “You getting so fat!” even though it was always said approvingly. More sensitive colleagues would tell him he was looking very “prosperous,” which amounted to the same thing but stung less! Here in North America, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask someone you’ve just met what they do for a living, which is considered extremely rude in other parts of the world. I wish I’d known that before I inadvertently offended everyone I met in France!

  7. Tricky. That’s why it’s better to let the other person do most of the talking and answer neutrally.

  8. Si Hui says:

    The content of this post struck a chord with me, as I recall reading the book by David Livermore. It’s called ‘ Leading with Cultural Intelligence’ and it’s totally about what you were writing about here.
    Not sure if you’ve read it, but I think it’s an awesome book that helps all of us cope with cultural differences at work.

    P.S. It’s my first time here and I’m loving your posts. Will be back for more! 🙂

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