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Intercultural Distinctions of Small Talk

"He [the French] likes to show his wit and does not hesitate to sacrifice a part of the truth for a witty remark." - I. Kant, Critique of Judgment followed by observations on the sentiment of the beautiful and the sublime.

Small talk is always an opportunity for success. When two people meet and enter into their first verbal contact, they usually quickly determine how interesting their counterpart is, and decide if they want to continue the conversation with them, to understand who this individual is.

If it's in the hospitality industry, conclusions are drawn about the whole institution, not just about the single employee who maintained the conversation with the customer.

Already in a short exchange of two or three sentences, everything usually becomes clear: whether one likes or dislikes the voice, manners, accent of the interlocutor, what he says and how. Do we like what is expressed by his body or his hands? Consequently, very different people, in fact, after exchanging a few trivialities, can easily make a psychological portrait of each other. So, yes, for a negotiator, small talk is a chance for success, a chance that his opposite number will have an adequate opinion of him, an opinion that the negotiator needs.

Indeed, it is difficult to predict when and with whom a brief unplanned communication will occur, but more often than not, it is not "the queen or king of England," so we must go beyond the classical limits. For what? To strengthen ties, win the sympathy of clients and partners, make new acquaintances and maintain old ones, and, after all, fill someone with good deeds, without doing it on purpose, to help (it happens, doesn't it?); to be known as a good conversationalist, because for a good conversationalist, as is known, all doors open and a good conversationalist is sure to be invited again.

There can be two tasks on this path: to start the conversation and to maintain it.

Psychologists assure that for an extrovert, small talk is not a problem or something that causes a feeling of discomfort or difficulty. And if an introvert and an extrovert meet, the latter will dominate, and the former will listen.

But, dear psychologists, this will not be small talk. Because small talk, like a game of ping-pong, has nothing to do with a monologue.

In England, small talk is primarily designed to tell our interlocutor, discreetly and in a relaxed atmosphere, who we are. INDIRECTLY, PLEASE NOTE.

For example, at a prestigious university, there is a certain diction that a student appropriates during the teaching period. People who studied at Eton will always recognize each other, even if they forget to wear their university tie. Just open your mouth and say a few words.

Basically, in England, small talk allows people who do not know each other to understand the level of education of their interlocutor and to see which social class they belong to. Because in England it is the class system that is dominant. It was Nancy Mitford who explained several decades ago how one can definitively determine one's social class membership. She wrote a book about language.

So, yes, small talk in England is really about two casually thrown sentences about the weather; they don't even need other topics.

In short, two sentences – and you can understand everything. The diction, the facial expression, the emotional side during the speech will say something very important about the one who spoke.

All these « tournures à l’anglaise » are devoid of meaning when we talk about Italy. In Italy, small talk can start at any time and has no goal.

Just a week after the lockdown related to the coronavirus and the opening of borders in May 2020, we had dinner in a restaurant in Venice. People occupying neighboring tables started talking to each other within the first minutes after taking their seats. They said it was great to return to restaurants, they appreciated the wine choice, they shared how they were doing. "Well, finally! It's great!" Their discussion was as lively as we had a great desire to join in.

Such relaxed small talk has no semantic load in Italy. It can be started with a waiter, or a host who escorts you to the table, with anyone. Here comes a third group of Italians entering and saying hello to all of us – all who are seated in the room.

Italian small talk is 100% of the time that an Italian spends outside the home. He enters into comprehensible communication with the world.

You have to forget all the good English manners when you are on the blessed soil of Italy. In fact, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" is a well-known English proverb since 1530. The English understood everything correctly.

France... Let's say a French person discusses the weather when they are not interested. This is because, from a young age in school, they are familiar with the major works of Montaigne, Pascal, Descartes, La Rochefoucauld. It is not just during a year at university but from school that a French child is taught to think, philosophize, reason. This largely explains why the model of French speech is built on the basis that one must know how to wield speech like a sword.

French people do not engage in these strange conversations about nothing. And while small talk in France might not carry a particular semantic load, the French will try to surprise their interlocutor with narrative logic, a statement, or an eloquent thought. This means that for a French person, this short verbal duel (and that's how they imagine an exchange of greetings and, in principle, any act of communication) is important to impress the interlocutor, distinguishing them from the English.

The eternal rivals: England and France. When an English person casually talks about the weather, a French person will try to make small talk a form of verbal art.

Regarding American small talk, there's a telling moment in Yuri Dud's (a famous Russian blogger-journalist) film about Silicon Valley. Yuri Dud' sincerely asks a local why people in America engage in small talk anywhere and anytime, as it seems quite... hypocritical. The answer is as follows: "It's not about hypocrisy; it's just how they were raised."

In America, this is indeed the case. In business, the following phrase works: "Cards on the table, let's get to work. What do you have?" In other words, when there's a specific business matter at hand, an American won't waste time on small talk.

But if you go beyond work relationships and find yourself in a queue at Starbucks, there, an American is likely to start a small talk in compliance with all the local life's laws. The main thing is that no one should be stressed. "Your shoes are so cool," "Oh, what glasses!", "Where did you buy that shirt?" We constantly hear compliments about our clothes, accessories, upon entering any store - in New York, Los Angeles, Miami - everywhere you're asked, "Where did you get such shoes?" It's important to note here that such compliments to objects are an exclusively American habit and in another society, such a compliment WOULD NOT BE WELCOME. Even if you really like a specific item, a European will compliment the owner's taste who chose it. But that's in Europe, and in America, we repeat, compliments to objects are made everywhere. At first, this seems surprising and unsettling, then it becomes pleasant, provokes a sincere reaction, and then you realize that this is the same American small talk. And you feel disappointment, like Yuri Dud'.

But what is, in fact, the problem? Why does Yuri Dud' feel disappointment?

Because even in modern Russia, very few people initiate small talk, a fact difficult to understand for our European colleagues. It seems to be a kind of memory that is still alive from the time when every word said too much to neighbors could cause deportation to the gulag. For too many years, the following thoughts have been rooted in the collective unconscious: "not over the phone", "you shouldn't say too many words", citizens are used to keeping silent: "to not provoke undesirable consequences". Idioms about "words being as heavy as gold" appeared, people lost the habit of speaking, they do not like unnecessary questions.

The politeness formulas accepted by the French can provoke disdainful rejection in the Russian soul, as they may consider them not entirely sincere, even simulated. And for a French person, the absence of a response signifies a lack of proper education.

A beautiful illustration of the fact that "you shouldn't say too many words" is found in the movie Ninotchka, where Greta Garbo plays a Soviet political commissioner. The Bolsheviks sell the tsars' jewels in Paris. Ninotchka takes care of this sale, then returns to the Soviet Union. And then, with comrades from Paris, they meet in the kitchen of a communal apartment. The film comically and very clearly demonstrates why they cannot indulge in memories or even talk simply.

It is common in Finland, after active group discussions, such as at a business conference, for silence to prevail during the coffee break. Several colleagues sit at the cafeteria at the same table, sipping coffee in silence.

For Americans, this would be at least an unusual situation. The feeling of silence is heavy, and small talk helps to overcome the discomfort. We need mundane conversation to show that we are involved in social life and to emphasize interest in the interlocutor.

If we put an American at the table with Finns, we will see that despite real efforts, he will not be able to animate a discussion during the break. However, he will manage to find silent listeners.

The fact is that for a Finn, silence in public places is a comfort zone. Finns prefer to listen rather than speak.

The second reason is related to their reluctance to engage in mundane conversations. They consider them unnecessary chatter.

There is no small talk in Finland.

If they consider something important, they get straight to the point and express themselves, but if they perceive the topic as insignificant, they prefer not to participate in the discussion.

One of my favorite classic examples of small talk is between the Queen of the United Kingdom and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Chancellor Merkel arrives, and the Queen takes on her hosting duties. She greets her, of course, and says she's glad to see her, then casually mentions: "I heard you had a very busy day today?" - to which Angela Merkel responds with benevolence and a smile, in keeping with her culture: "It's my duty to have busy days." With this simple reply, she shows her attitude towards work, her intelligence, her education, her German character. The Chancellor finds an immediate response, and it doesn't seem too banal. She emphasizes that it's her duty, a matter of honor.

Anastasia Shevchenko


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