Ever been stuck in an elevator ride alone with the big boss, nervously wondering if you should engage in small talk or give in to your instinctive desire to whip out your phone and pretend to be busy? Or seated at a friend’s wedding dinner amongst strangers who were as awkwardly silent as you were?
If you are Malaysian, you have likely experienced both situations before. While small talk (polite conversation about unimportant matters during social occasions) may be a norm for most Westerners, taking the initiative to speak to strangers does not come naturally for many Malaysians. Why is that so?
As a face-saving culture, we tend to avoid situations that may cause embarrassment or shame. Better to keep silent than to say the wrong thing or cause the other party to feel uncomfortable with intrusive questions. Our hierarchical nature can also cause us to be hesitant to converse with those who are older or deemed as higher ranking than us, unless we have first been invited to do so. In addition, Malaysians value relationships that are based on trust and familiarity, and may thus find no need to engage in superficial talk with people they may never meet again.
It’s crucial for Malaysians to note though, that small talk is increasingly serving an important purpose especially in business settings. Interviewers may judge potential candidates based on their conduct towards the support staff or how well they handle pleasantries before the interview begins. Multinational companies hire many non-Malaysians who may expect the locals to engage in small talk as conversation starters, and many business meetings now begin with small talk before establishing long-lasting business relationships. With these in mind, how can Malaysians develop the art of engaging in small talk effectively?
Firstly, read the news. Being informed of what’s happening locally and abroad gives you a storehouse of common topics you can speak about. When in doubt, asking “How are you?”, speaking about food, the hot weather or the traffic jam are safe options as most Malaysians would likely have a response to those matters. Secondly, Malaysians are a high-context culture so you can take advantage of this by reading your counterpart’s body language, eye contact or tone of voice to ascertain whether you should proceed with small talk or not. Thirdly, be prepared to share things about yourself. And fourthly, try practising with everyone you meet. Greet those you see in the elevator, chat with those with you in the waiting room and be friendly to those you pass by on a daily basis.
Small talk can help build the foundation for genuine conversations and deeper relationships down the road. One of our Tea Talks can provide further insight in making a good impression when networking and communicating to achieve your desired results.
By: Boleh Blogger