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For Immigrants, Making Small Talk is Big Deal

  • Sally Herships

The foreign-born population in the United States is now at an all-time high - more than 10 percent. And while recession-time jobs are hard to come by for Americans, for those born overseas, finding a job here can be even tougher.

Understanding what American employers want

Wei Fang, who is from the Shanghai area, is getting his MBA at Brandeis University in Boston, Massachusetts. And he's looking for a job in the United States. But he says he's uncomfortable promoting himself in interviews with American employers.

"In China," he explains, "the employers like the employees to be hard working and quiet. They want you speak only when they want you speak."

In meeting potential employers here, knowing how to make small talk can make a big difference. But for foreign workers, promoting themselves - making small talk, "schmoozing," things Americans take for granted - can be tricky. Fang says he felt blind during his first few job interviews here.

"Lost, actually, when I was in the conversation. I don't know where to go next."

This type of cultural anxiety can be a real disadvantage at interview time. So the Brandeis business school offers a program to help foreign students adapt to the American culture.

Learning to communicate like Americans

Today is the last day of class. Students from around the world are setting up their final projects, opening laptops and taping posters to the walls. In one corner, Isaac Ndawula stops to talk with fellow student Sheila Mutamba. Her project is learning to make American-style small talk.

"So after all this, do you intend to take this back home?" he asks her. She nods. "I do, because I think small talk is very important."

Ndawula is from Uganda, Mutamba from Rwanda. Both say in the part of Africa they come from, you don't get chatty with strangers. Mutamba says now, after a semester's practice, she's becoming a more confident conversationalist. But she says her first attempt at making small talk was very different.

"I remember that very clearly, because it was very hard. And just 'cause I'm black, I can't blush, but I was really feeling very awkward and very embarrassed," she says with a laugh.

As part of a homework assignment, Mutamba says she did something an American might not think twice about. She turned to a stranger in a restaurant and started talking about the weather.

"So I keep trying to talk, but I have all these things in my head. I'm trying to be appropriate. I'm trying not to be nosey."

Back home, she says, things are more conservative. If a woman approaches a man, it could seem suggestive.

Adapting to a different set of rules

Andrew Molinksy, who created the Brandeis program, observes, "They don't know the rules. They don't know the script."

The organizational behavior professor explains that even when workers are qualified, if they don't know what the norms of the culture are, they can end up looking socially incompetent.

That was the case with a Russian engineer he worked with, who had 17 unsuccessful job interviews. Molinsky says she was extremely qualified, "but she kept failing on the interview, and she would get feedback that she wasn't a great fit."

The rules for appropriate behavior in a traditional Russian job interview, he says, are to be honest, modest and serious. The engineer told him smiling was inappropriate.

"All this silly, friendly behavior," he recalls her saying, "if you smile in my culture like this, you look like a fool."

But, he points out, in America, it gets you a job, or at least a chance.

According to Columbia University Business School professor Michael Morris, in an increasingly global economy, all workers need to learn to manage across cultures. He says there's not much emphasis on that in the U.S. educational system, so it's something many Americans never learn how to do.

"Despite all the advantages, all the good luck of being born an American, having this great educational system and this affluent country, this is one disadvantage," Morris notes, suggesting we all need to catch up if we want to be global leaders.