Foreigners often say that Russians are too direct. One of manifestations of that is going straight to the point at business meetings or in social situations. That makes people from some countries, especially Americans, very uncomfortable. Why don’t we do small talk?
If you read classical Russian literature from the 19 century, you would notice a lot of descriptions of social evenings of aristocrats. They dressed up and rode in a carriage to the so-called “salons”, where they engaged in conversations, danced and enjoyed their free time.
People, who were welcomed to such events, belonged to a very thin layer of the society. Those were people from noble families, who received excellent education either abroad or in Russia, with the help of foreign tutors. They spoke several languages, often traveled abroad and had a lot of exposure to other cultures, especially to the French culture.
So, no wonder that they had excellent communication skills and, could take part in the conversation pretty well. I wonder though, what percentage was that social layer from the entire population, mostly represented by peasants? For them life was far from easy, people worked a lot in a field. Not all children had luxury to study in school; instead they had to help their families at work. Communication in this social circle was more direct and up to the point.
It would not be correct to generalise Soviet time as one homogenous epoch as each of the decades had its’ own communication characteristics. However, for most of the Soviet years communication was skewed to being “in-circle”, among close friends, at homes of each other. Networking and meetings at social events, where most people were strangers was less common.
Unfriendly and hostile environment, both politically and economically, made close friendships extremely valuable. Close friends formed one’s support networks; relationships among friends were becoming more and more deep. In the Soviet economy the income gap among people was relatively small, deficit of goods in stores made it easier to save than to spend. Soviet people had a lot of free time, balance of work/life was good, and so people read and thought a lot. Being “deep”, well-educated, well read were the qualities that mattered.
And when you talk to your close friends, you do not need a small talk. You talk about things that really matter and expect the other side to listen and contribute to the meaningful conversation.
During the Perestroika of the 90s, one of the most frequently used words was JV – Joint Venture. International firms have made their way to the Russian market and were looking for local partners and employees, who could help them set up businesses here.
Intercultural differences became one of the biggest obstacles in that process. Ability or inability to do small talk may have been not the biggest of them. But still important, since Westerners are accustomed to using small talk for testing the waters, to have a feel for communication skills of the potential partner.
The Dutch organizational theorist Fons Trompenaars popularised the theory that people from some cultures (i.e. Americans) could be viewed as peaches (soft on the surface and easy to connect with, but having a hard shell inside, which makes it more difficult to become close friends with them.
And people from other cultures (i.e. Russians) may at first seem as unapproachable as coconuts, but once you get through the outside shell, there is a soft center inside. Russians are initially closed to strangers, but then open and may become your best friends.
This Harvard Business Review article One Reason Cross Cultural Small-Talk Is So Tricky explains how to behave if you are a coconut among peaches and vice versa.
Most Russians are not used to the concept of small talk and do not see value in it. That could be supported by the fact that there is even no direct translation of small talk. Google translate says that it is meaningless chit-chat, chatter or babble
As often happens with the intercultural differences – the key is to see and acknowledge such differences. That alone greatly helps in avoiding miscommunications. The next step is to adjust your own cultural communication style to the style of others, to make them feel more at ease and facilitate building a relationship. And finally, often both sides can learn something from each other.
Here is a video, in which Ellen DeGeneres describes a typical small talk in the US:
And how important is the small talk in your culture? What were your experiences of doing small talk in other countries? Looking forward to your stories!
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.