Harvard Business Review: One Reason Cross-Cultural Small Talk Is So Tricky

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by Erin Meyer  |   8:00 AM May 30, 2014

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.”
It’s a classic mistake. One of the first things you notice when arriving in a new culture is that the rules about what information is and is not appropriate to ask and share with strangers are different. Understanding those rules, however, is a prerequisite for succeeding in that new culture; simply applying your own rules gets you into hot water pretty quickly.
A good way to prepare is to ask yourself whether the new culture is a “peach” or a “coconut”. This is a distinction drawn by culture experts Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner. In peach cultures like the USA or Brazil people tend to be friendly (“soft”) with new acquaintances. They smile frequently at strangers, move quickly to first-name usage, share information about themselves, and ask personal questions of those they hardly know. But after a little friendly interaction with a peach, you may suddenly get to the hard shell of the pit where the peach protects his real self and the relationship suddenly stops.
In coconut cultures such Russia and Germany, people are initially more closed off from those they don’t have friendships with. They rarely smile at strangers, ask casual acquaintances personal questions, or offer personal information to those they don’t know intimately. But over time, as coconuts get to know you, they become gradually warmer and friendlier. And while relationships are built up slowly, they also tend to last longer.
Coconuts may react to peaches in a couple of ways. Some interpret the friendliness as an offer of friendship and when people don’t follow through on the unintended offer, they conclude that the peaches are disingenuous or hypocritical.  Such as the German in Brazil who puzzled: “In Brazil people are so friendly – they are constantly inviting me over for coffee. I happily agree, but time and again they forget to tell me where they live.”  Igor Agapov, a Russian colleague, was equally surprised to experience the pit of the peach on his first trip to the United States: “I sat next to a stranger on the airplane for a nine-hour flight to New York. This American began asking me very personal questions: was it my first trip to the U.S., what was I leaving behind in Russia, had I been away from my children for this long before? He also shared very personal information about himself. He told me he was a bass player and talked about how difficult his frequent travelling was for his wife, who was with his newborn child right now in Florida.”
In response, Agapov started to do something unusual in Russian culture. He shared his personal story thinking they had built an unusually deep friendship in a short period of time. The sequel was quite disappointing: “I thought that after this type of connection, we would be friends for a very long time. When the airplane landed, imagine my surprise when, as I reached for a piece of paper in order to write down my phone number, my new friend stood up and with a wave of his hand said, ‘Nice to meet you! Have a great trip!’ And that was it. I never saw him again. I felt he had purposely tricked me into opening up when he had no intention of following through on the relationship he had instigated.”
Others are immediately suspicious. A French woman who visited with my family in Minnesota was taken aback by the Midwest’s peachiness: “The waiters here are constantly smiling and asking me how my day is going! They don’t even know me. It makes me feel uncomfortable and suspicious. What do they want from me? I respond by holding tightly onto my purse.”
On the other hand, coming from a peach culture as I do, I was equally taken aback when I came to live in Europe 14 years ago. My friendly smiles and personal comments were greeted with cold formality by the Polish, French, German, or Russian colleagues I was getting to know. I took their stony expressions as signs of arrogance, snobbishness, and even hostility.
So what do you do if, like me, you’re a peach fallen amongst coconuts? Authenticity matters; if you try to be someone you’re not, it never works. So go ahead and smile all you want and share as much information about your family as you like. Just don’t ask personal questions of your counterparts until they bring up the subject themselves.  And for my coconut readers, if your peach counterpart asks how you are doing, shows you photos of their family or even invites you over for a barbecue, don’t take it as an overture to deep friendship or a cloak for some hidden agenda, but as an expression of different cultural norms that you need to adjust to.