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Small Talk

Small Talk – Does It Exist In Russia?

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?

Small Talk Did Exist At The Aristocratic Salons Of The Past

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.

Aristocratic salon in Russia

A salon in mid-19th century Russia, by V. M. Kustodiev

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.

Soviet Time Style Of Communication

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.

Modern Time – Dealing With Foreigners

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.

Peach vs Coconut cultures

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.

coconuts vs peaches

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.

What To Expect And How To Do… Or Not Do Small Talk With Russians

  • hating small talk

    Most Russians do not feel comfortable about small talk (http://www.howtobemoresocial.net/small-talk-topics/)

    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

  • Russians either do not talk at all or talk about things that are important to them; Russians may go straight to the point both in business meetings and in social situations. To some extent that is justified by not wasting your precious time
  • But be prepared that if you ask Russians some questions, their answer might be long and detailed. Even the basic question “How are you?” is not a greeting in Russia. It is a question that deserves a thorough answer
  • Russian conversation style is more descriptive and based on stories. Stories often have detours, which do strengthen the point or expand the conversation
  • Small talking with strangers, shop assistants, waiters etc. would make them feel uncomfortable. For them it may even feel as if you are hitting on them or invading their private zone
  • To approach complete strangers you would usually need a good reason, such as asking for directions
  • Some small talk is OK here. But if a person would small talk too much, Russians will think s/he is shallow or even crazy. We have a saying: “Words are silver, silence is golden”…
  • If small talk happens at the business meetings, it usually only happens in the beginning of the meeting. Appropriate topics are weather, traffic to the office and discussing the venue where the meeting takes place (especially if you are meeting at your Russian counterpart office and can compliment on something nice or interesting s/he has there)
  • Using jokes for small talk in the beginning of business meetings or business calls is advised only if you already tested that joke with your Russian friends and they understood it, laughed and found it proper for business context. Be very careful though – Russians treat business seriously, so even if the joke was funny and clean, it may still be perceived as an inappropriate way to start the business talk
  • Do not expect much small talk (if any) at the end of the business meeting. Meetings in Russia are usually much less structured than in the West. And meetings would often go over the time limit and end, when your counterpart glances at his watch and understands, he is late and needs to run to make it on time to the other meeting

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!

Leave a Reply

  • malonek - 3 years ago

    We have exactly the same saying in Czech “Mluviti stříbro, mlčeti zlato.” In fact I found that many of such phrases are the same in my language although in many aspects the languages are quite distant (although they are in the same family). And most other things mentioned in the article are also the same for us. We’re definitely a coconut culture as well. Maybe it’s one of the reasons why I felt so good in Russia. :)

    • Tanya Golubeva - 3 years ago

      Ahoj Malonek,
      Thank you very much for your insights! I agree with you – our cultures are similar in many communication aspects!I also feel very good in Czech Republic and spent a lot of time there, especially in Prague!
      S pozdravem,
      Tanya

  • Loose Cannon - 3 years ago

    I must be part Russian because I hate small talk and phony smiles.

    I’m not sure what the root of these Russian stereotypes come from. Is everyone all smiles in NYC? NO. Is everyone up for some friendly small talk in Philadelphia, the so-called City Of Brotherly Love? If you have been there, you would appreciate the unintentionally extreme sarcasm of that title.

    Ever hear of the “Portland freeze”?

    How about Minnesota http://live.mprnews.org/Event/Are_Minnesotans_friendly_to_newcomers?Page=0

    It’s up to the visitor to adjust.

    The one stereotype I believe is customer service being poor in Russia. I believe it because I have seen Russians themselves say it. But maybe that is changing?

    • Tanya Golubeva - 3 years ago

      Thank you very much for your insights! I know about “Minnesota nice” – have spent one summer in Minneapolis. But I never heard about the “Portland freeze”. As for NYC – people actually do smile more there than in Moscow, but of course people are much more cold to strangers in NYC than in other cities in the US.
      Customer service in Russia used to be very poor and unfriendly in Soviet time. But that had improved A LOT in the last 20 years.

  • Kristina Sikorskaja - 3 years ago

    H, Tatianai!
    I really like your blog.
    I nominated you for the Liebster award!
    Check it out > http://wp.me/pScge-9V

    Kristina from www. britsandrusskies.com

  • Jippy - 2 years ago

    In America we actually have small talk contests at work. How much and for how long can we small talk. Our meetings start with jokes, skits, or playing a practical joke on someone. We had a Russian guy here for a while. It would drive him nuts. I would always say to him hey what’s going on? He would start rambling on about all this stuff. I would just pretend my phone rang and leave.

  • Anonymous - 1 year ago

    Finally I have found a good explanation for this inexplicable Russian trait. I have been in Russia twice already and I have had contact with many Russians. As a Brazilian, definitely, this is the most difficult aspect of Russian culture to assimilate, especially because small talk is so important to us: http://thebrazilbusiness.com/article/converse-like-a-brazilian In fact, I am not sure I would be able to live without small talk. About the peach and coconut comparison, I think it would be sobering to add that the coconut, in spite of being purportedly soft inside, still will avoid small talk. :)