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The science of cross-cultural small talk – Don't treat others as you want to be treated

11 May 2021. Published by Rebecca Baker , Trainee Solicitor

Leaders and scholars of business ethics often espouse the benefits of the "golden rule" - treat others as you would want to be treated - but it could be a risky way to approach cross-cultural business relationships.

Research shows that following the golden rule improves a company's reputation, culture, and bottom line. It even underpins one of the most important business metrics of the 21st century: the Net Promoter Score (the percentage of customers who are promoters of a brand, less the percentage of its detractors).

However, when it comes to cross-cultural communication, the golden rule does not always ring true. The science of small talk shows we need to break the golden rule (or perhaps re-model it a little) to build effective business relationships.

Small talk: an unexpected minefield

Although it's generally unwise to generalise, there are some interesting cross-cultural differences between how various cultures approach small talk. More importantly, how cultural groups interpret each other's contrasting communication styles exposes the flaws in the golden rule, showing that it is not always wise to assume that others will appreciate the same social behaviours as you do. 

A German study, which attempted to generate culture-specific casual dialogue in chat-bots, examined the differences between the Japanese and German approach to small talk. The study set up conversations between German and Japanese pairs and observed the differences, which they then programmed into virtual agents. They then asked German participants to observe pairs of German and Japanese virtual agents engaging in small talk and rate which they found more appropriate or interesting.

The group's reactions to each other's conversations show the cultural misunderstandings and assumptions that can unwittingly occur in seemingly innocuous social situations. German observers interpreted the Japanese participants' tendency to comment on the immediate environment and avoid personal discussions as "distant" and "superficial", while they interpreted the more familiar German tendency to discuss personal topics more as showing greater interest in their conversation partner.  The study also demonstrates that some cultures may prefer their small talk to be a little larger in scale and some do not consider it to be valuable at all, preferring to get straight to the point.

Making incorrect cultural assumptions can clearly impact budding business relationships, and can sometimes have serious consequences. There are too many well-intentioned diplomatic gaffes to list that could have been avoided with some cultural understanding and realising that people do not always have the same eccentric sense of humour as oneself. In tense negotiations or crisis scenarios with little room for error, cultural understanding and appropriate communication can be the difference between success and failure.

Cultural Intelligence

If the golden rule now seems like a risky communication strategy, current thinking encourages a more nuanced approach to bonding with business counterparts: cultural intelligence, or CQ. People can build their CQ by:

showing drive to work better with others;
collecting knowledge about cultural differences;
learning how to plan for multicultural interactions; and
adapting their behaviour when required.

Building a high-CQ workforce enables businesses not only to build beneficial relationships with clients but also improve productivity and employee performance. The attributes of high CQ encourage curiosity and exploration of a broader range of tools and resources, enabling faster problem solving. It also underpins a company's ability to build diverse and effective teams

Equally, low CQ can affect businesses in many ways beyond reputational damage and, at worst, legal action. Low-CQ hiring managers will struggle to attract diverse talent if they cannot create a culturally intelligent culture. If a company's employees are culturally clueless, it's not likely their customers and clients would recommend them to a friend (the essential question behind the Net Promoter Score), and a company can't grow its customer base unless people are willing to advocate on its behalf.

CQ is a crucial attribute for all businesspeople in 2021 and it is vital that companies support their employees in acquiring it; an organisation with high CQ will quickly out-perform one without it.

The Golden Rule for 2021

Empathy will always be the foundation-stone of understanding how other people tick, but employees can bring a huge amount of value to their organisation if they increase their CQ. The data shows that the best way to build strong business connections and succeed in a competitive market is to understand and adapt to others' cultural approach, treating them the way they want to be treated. Also, if the chat-bot algorithms in the above German study catch on, no-one wants to be branded as less culturally sensitive than a robot.