Small Talk

So, how are you? Did you have a nice weekend? Is the family well and did you have no trouble finding a parking spot? Splendid.

I hope this was enough small talk for you because this is already the best I can do. I’m German and Germans don’t do small talk. It is not part of German business culture, in fact many Germans (myself included, I admit) consider it a waste of time. People from many other cultures consider this rude, in fact different expectations of small talk could seriously impair (even destroy) business relationships.

The attitude to small talk is closely connected to relationship and task orientation. In some cultures the personal relationship is vital for doing business together. In fact, there are cultures where you can’t get anything done without personal relationships – often in countries where one can (or could) not fully rely on the law / authorities.

The importance of relationships are obvious in cultures that have an own name for a relationship-based business culture – such as “guanxi” in China. I won’t even attempt to explain in detail the complexity of guanxi, there are others who can do it much better. In short, guanxi is the intricate network required to be successful in China (in private and business life). It is built up by doing favours for each other, helping each other out, getting to know each other, trusting each other. You can imagine that building guanxi takes time and if you have ever done business in China, you will know that social interaction is a major part of any business dealings, that social and business lives are combined. Whereas in Germany work and private life are usually strictly separated, in China the borders are fluent and you won’t get far if you decline all evening activities with business partners and/or work colleagues. Many other cultures are relationship-oriented, though not always to the same degree as China, which is why I used it as an example here. As a rule of thumb Asian cultures are relationship-oriented, as are Arabic and Latin culture.

Germany is as task-oriented as it gets. I’m not saying that relationships can’t be helpful in some cases, but they are not considered vital to a business deal. Actually, there are cases where it is frowned upon or even detrimental (ask a former Bundespräsident of ours, who was not legally guilty of anything, but had to resign his post because of  wealthy friends and potential advantages.). Basically, we like to get down to business and not form friendships in the negotiation room. Being too relationship-oriented in Germany can be met with discomfort from the other side, even be considered unprofessional.

I had an expat in one training who took on a high position in Germany. Every Monday, she would ask her team how their weekend had been, what they had done and so on. After some weeks, some of her team members asked her – politely but clearly – to stop doing that. It was a bit too personal for them, especially coming from the boss. Now, that is a drastic example – of course Germans chat in the office and inquire about each others’ weekends, but not to the same extent as in most other countries. When I worked in the US, I was amazed how much time people spent each Monday discussing their weekends at length. Typical German that I am, I considered it inefficient and a bit too much personal detail in the work place.

And there you are right in the German world of no small talk. We like efficiency, getting things done and also a bit of “work before play”.  You might remember my evening in Spain, which shows how Germans approach business. There are quite a lot of articles about German efficiency and successful economy in spite of short work weeks and long holidays. We might spend less hours at the office than most other countries, but we don’t get less done – often on the contrary. The reason is that when we are at work, we work. Get the work done and then leave and enjoy leisure time, and of course one gets to enjoy this leisure time sooner if the work is done quicker. And when it’s leisure time, it’s leisure time – Germans don’t much approve of overtime and/or weekend work. There is a German saying that goes “Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps” (work is work and schnapps is schnapps) that shows how much we separate work and private life.

I had people in my trainings who struggled with this German attitude when they worked here. They considered it cold, even rude, especially as they were the “new kid” in the office and felt a bit alone. Even after work there are not many activities colleagues do together, people usually have friends outside of the workplace (that is not to say you can’t make friends at work in Germany. One of my dearest and closest friends is a former colleague). If you are in this situation, your German colleagues might not even be aware of your feelings and I can assure you that nobody intends to be cold or to exclude you. I point that out often during trainings with relationship-oriented expats, because one tends to forget that other cultures might have a completely different approach. Culture is basically what people found out works for them, and this task-oriented approach works very well for Germans – relationships were never necessary as one can usually rely on the law and the state and as Germans are very rule- and process-oriented. Business dealings and the like are regulated by contracts and people rely on the contract, on the legal framework, so they don’t need to rely on a relationship with the business partner.  (This, by the way, is another source of misunderstanding between task and relationship-oriented cultures: in relationship-oriented cultures, contracts can be changed or amended. For Germans that’s the ultimate breach of trust). The efficient approach helped us during many crises and has helped the German economy, so for Germans the work before play approach is successful.

Back to small talk.  If you consider our task-oriented approach, you will probably understand why we have no time and patience for small talk. It is not needed here because its main goal is to build / develop relationships. It takes time away from other things – why chat about the weather if we could sit down and negotiate the deal? Some even consider it a bit insincere – why should I pretend to be interested in your weekend? You can even see this attitude in our communication – Germans are the most direct communicators in the world. We don’t waste time on the sandwich approach when giving feedback, we don’t sugarcoat requests – Germans say it like it is. I actually had one German in a training who got quite upset about the sandwich approach, because he considered it dishonest.

This all works well when Germans do business with Germans or other task-oriented cultures (I recently had a Finnish couple in a training which was quite adamant in their dislike for small talk). There are even some people from relationship-oriented cultures who are relieved about our approach. A Japanese expat told me that writing an email takes a long time in Japan, because one has to ensure to include enough relationship-oriented sentences, to not mention the actual topic too quickly, and she said that if was a difficult task even for many Japanese people. She found it relaxing to email Germans without the frills. However, there are many people from relationship-oriented cultures who consider task-oriented communication rude and are offended by it. I understand that and can easily see how the German way of communication (written and oral) can seem like a slap in the face for some people.

Therefore, when Germans want to be successful in relationship-oriented cultures, they need to adapt and they are aware of it. One German expat who went to work in the US had to remind herself every day to spend a few minutes at other colleagues’ desks, chatting. It didn’t feel natural to her, it was part of a daily schedule, but she knew that any other behaviour would be considered aloof and worked on it. When I write emails to people from relationship-oriented cultures, I always do my best to make it sound more personable. Still, the important thing for anybody from a task-oriented culture is not just to put “be more personable” on their inner agenda (or maybe even in their calendar), but to understand that in many cultures, small talk is not a waste of time but an investment into the future. One might spend some hours more on everything by being sociable, by making small talk, but it will save hours later when things run much smoother because there is a relationship. Neither is it considered dishonest – it’s a sign of goodwill. In the book “Watching the English” the example of British people always chatting about the weather is used and a good point is made: “Our conversations about the weather are not really about the weather at all: English weather-speak is a form of code, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other.”

However, we Germans wouldn’t be Germans if we hadn’t found a German solution to the small talk issue – in Germany it is possible to take a seminar in small talk. Do an internet search on it and you’ll find many offers, ranging from the local VHS (adult education centre) to expensive business  training companies, where you can pay around 1,000 Euros to learn small talk. And get a diploma, of course. We like diplomas. My non-German training participants usually laugh when I tell them about the seminars and most don’t believe me. Still, if small talk doesn’t come natural to one, one has to learn it, and willingness to learn it shows willingness to adapt, which in my opinion is never a bad thing.

Anyway, I hope you’ll have a lovely day. Give my best wishes to your family. (Yeeeeees, I should visit one of those seminars, I know).

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