Avoiding cross cultural mistakes during small talk

Cross cultural communication can often be tricky, even when making small talk in casual or business settings.

Erin Meyer, who is from the USA and is an Affiliate Professor at INSEAD, illustrates this quite well –

It was my first dinner party in France and I was chatting with a Parisian couple. All was well until I asked what I thought was a perfectly innocent question: “How did the two of you meet?” My husband Eric (who is French) shot me a look of horror. When we got home he explained: “We don’t ask that type of question to strangers in France. It’s like asking them the color of their underpants.”

In different cultures the rules about what information is appropriate to ask/share are different. To succeed in cross cultural communications understanding those rules is important. Applying your own rules, without trying to understand the other side’s culture, can lead to trouble and misunderstandings.

According to Erin, an easy and great way to prepare is to ask yourself whether the person from the other culture is a “peach” or a “coconut”. Peach cultures such as the USA are quite friendly (“soft”) when they meet new people. They smile, use first names, share details about themselves and could ask relatively personal questions. However, after a point you may quickly reach the hard shell of the peach where their real self is guarded and the relationship does not go any further.

In coconut cultures like France, people are distant and impersonal at first. However, over time, once they get to know you better, they slowly become friendlier and these relationships tend to last longer.

Due to these cross cultural differences, coconuts might see peaches as:

  • Superficial or hypocritical.
  • Overly friendly or having a hidden agenda.
  • Not following through on initial friendliness.

And peaches might see coconuts as:

  • Cold.
  • Arrogant or hostile.
  • Snobbish.

Here are some quick tips for such cross cultural interactions:

If you’re a peach: Be authentic, smile and share whatever personal information you’d like. However, refrain from asking the coconut personal questions until they start volunteering the information themselves.

If you’re a coconut: Remember that peaches like to make personal small talk and this might not mean that they want to develop a close friendship, or have some sort of agenda. Try and reciprocate the initial friendliness to the extent that you are comfortable.

Erin’s insight draws on work by Fons Trompenaars, who specialises in the field of cross cultural communication. Have a look at this video, where he provides more information on the topic, with some uses for teams/organisations.

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