On an average annual basis, thousands of employees in international companies spend thousands of hours attending courses, seminars, workshops, presentations, etc. about how to understand other people’s cultures, including their norms and values (the reason they do things the way they do). They attend these often compulsory training sessions so that they will become better able to communicate with their counterparts, in turn making the wheels of international commerce turn more smoothly to everyone’s mutual benefit.
These same employees might also attend courses on a feature of modern business life that has been becoming increasingly emphasized as being important for anyone wanting to get ahead in their field. It has many names – networking, mingling, the art of conversation, making small talk. Course participants receive several tips about how to go about meeting new people, including topics that are ‘safe’ to talk about – where people come from, their line of work, and that old standby if all else fails, the weather.
While all of these courses are well and good, I wonder why they don’t include more practical advice as to what two people from different countries can ask one another about besides the abovementioned safe topics in order to create a bit more depth and trust between them. To be specific, if one of the conversational partners is a native of the country and the other a newcomer, what can the former do to make a good impression on the latter?
We talked about this topic at my course last week on intercultural communication in the workplace. I threw out the idea of having natives ask newcomers ‘quality questions’ about where they come from. A short silence followed, then a hand in the air: ‘What’, the woman asked, ‘do you mean by quality? Aren’t just standard questions good enough?’
Well, I explained, I don’t disagree with you, as in sometimes in certain situations like a short break in a crowded conference hall, you simply don’t have time to get beyond the tried and true inquiries listed above. And there is nothing wrong with that. But what about, say, situations at work where you meet someone with whom you’re going to be spending some time, perhaps working on a project that is set to last for several weeks or even months? What if you get a new foreign-born employee on your staff? Shouldn’t you take the responsibility of going beyond small talk in order to get to know them better?
I went on to talk about how we all get impressions of other countries largely from the media. While this can include useful amounts of information, it can also just perpetuate stereotypes of the country and its culture and the people living in this culture. And the reason I brought up the importance of asking quality questions is because it happens so infrequently to me. I’m an American who has lived abroad for 25 years and have become what is called an expat (an interesting yet troubling term, but also a topic for a different article). I come from a country that is constantly in the media limelight, quite often for what I sadly acknowledge are not positive events, to put it mildly. I also acknowledge that I come from a country that does more than its share of exporting media stereotypes (Hollywood, anyone?) that people living in my adopted country understandably absorb as part of their knowledge of the US. So over the years I’ve answered many questions put to me by strangers making small talk that revolves largely around the huge – often controversial – media-soaked issues taking place in my home country (the current presidential election comes to mind, sigh). In many ways this is fine, and I get that people have a need to bring these topics up when they get a live representative, as it were, in front of them and thereby have the opportunity to get some thoughts off their chests about what’s going on in the world’s last remaining superpower. Unfortunately, what most often happens after this is, well, not a whole lot more of any substance – the conversation dies out, and I am left picking up the pieces of it before we go our separate ways.
Of course, I’m not alone here in having to deal with stereotypes; it happens to many foreigners when natives have ideas about what their countries are like based only on what they’ve read and heard throughout the years. No revolutionary thought there, it’s just a part of living abroad. Nor am I excusing my own countrymen (whose geographical knowledge is not always, erm, solid), as when visiting the States one summer I was –truly- asked if Norway really was the capital of Sweden (they thought they’d read that somewhere on the Net)…ouch.
So back to the need for quality questions – what are these? One example is to ask about your foreign-born conversational partner about their country’s educational system. What is it like where they come from? How is it different from your own? When do children start school? When are they done? What subjects are emphasized? What is their school day like? I use this as an example because I remember the day and place several years ago when it was asked of me, remarkable for the fact that because it has happened so little over the years, I actually remember it. I was surprised and pleased by the question, and it took me a couple of moments to formulate my answer – leading quite happily to a rather interesting discussion with the woman who had asked it, as she had shown genuine curiosity and the ability to look beyond the stereotype of American schools portrayed in the media.
There are many other such quality questions to ask, will write them down in a future article. I try to remember to ask them whenever I find myself in these situations. I write ‘try’ because I’m certainly not always any conversational wizard, and have been known not to follow my own at times preachy advice. And yet when I have remembered to ask a quality question of someone, I’ve gotten nothing but a positive and slightly grateful response in return. And while I won’t claim that I’ve necessarily ‘gotten ahead’ in business from these encounters, I have certainly met some interesting people and had some interesting conversations, which is only a positive and can be highly recommended: Try it yourself sometime and see what happens.
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