Talking to colleagues beyond the work topics
If you come from a different country and you’re not accustomed to interacting with Americans (maybe you’ve seen them in movies and that’s it!), it can be difficult to build rapport and get close. I hear this all the time from international students and clients. They feel awkward or unsure how to talk to their colleagues or team mates if the conversation isn’t about technical or work matters.
As one client put it, “I always tried to avoid having lunch with my co-workers because I didn’t know how to speak to them.” She’s not talking about English skills. Her English was fine. It was a different kind of knowledge gap – I call it the Rapport Gap. And it affects a great many international professionals at every level of a company.
Now some would say that it’s the company’s job to provide a more comfortable and inclusive space for everyone. And this is undoubtedly true. However, there are things you can do as well to contribute to better and easier communication and rapport building.
How to build rapport
1.Ask for a restaurant or cafe recommendation. Everyone has a favorite restaurant and a dish they’re eager to talk about or share. Most people in urban areas drink coffee or tea and have a place they go to regularly. This kind of conversation can expand into other ‘neighborhood’ topics.
(For more small talk or casual conversation tips, check out my blog post here https://omnienglishpro.com/business-english/3-american-small-talk-tips-that-will-change-your-life/
2.Talk about hometowns. If your colleague is from the US, chances are they’re not originally from whatever city they’re currently working in. Americans tend to move around a lot. On top of that, the US has vast culture regional differences that are fun to discuss. You can then talk about regional differences where you’re from.
3.Find out what movies or Netflix shows they’re watching and catch up on them. Of course it would be more ideal if the culture doorway went both directions and Americans knew more about global culture. But the reality is that this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. With the possible exception of recent South Korean offerings such as Parasite and Squid Games, Americans are woefully ignorant of anything outside the US. That said, if you take a little time to find out what your co-workers are watching, then you’ll be able to participate in the conversations more easily.
4.Sports Some Americans are intense sports fans will show up at games spray painted with their team’s colors and screaming like crazy people. Most Americans don’t go to this extreme but as a nation, most of us are at least casually interested in sports. Office conversations often include some reference to local teams or perhaps a championship of some sort coming up. I recommend at least learning the names and standings of the local baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and soccer teams. You should also know the names at least of the star players and possibly something about the rivalries. (LA and SF teams are long term rivals and this relates to some of the other culture differences between the two cities.)
5.Most important, don’t assume there’s no common ground. This is a big one actually. I’ve heard a lot of international students (and professionals) tell me they simply have nothing in common with American or Western co-workers. Then they don’t try to communicate or interact. You might feel that you don’t have anything in common, but we’re all human beings. Take a chance and just talk to people – it will get easier and you’ll find your work relationships improving over time! There are differences of course, but there are a lot of shared interests and attitudes. And we can enjoy the differences as much as the similarities.