Another easy way to build rapport with your US colleagues

Personal connections make business easier

Following up on my previous blog entry on building rapport with US colleagues and co-workers, I wanted to assure you that as difficult as it seems, this is something you can definitely do. You can definitely build a close connection with Americans in your work place, but it’s a skill that has to be developed over time. And once you learn how to do it, you can reap the benefits. Because the universal law of business advancement being based on personal connection is true in the US as much as anywhere. However, you have to get used to the idea that the problem or challenge is ultimately a cultural one. It’s not about your English. You may think it’s about your English ability or that you don’t know what you can say (and this might be true to a degree). But the core of the issue is a cultural difference in the way people in the US think about socializing and about business and the workplace.

Peach vs Coconut

One thing you need to understand is that the US is a “peach” culture. According to cultural theorists, there are “peach” cultures and there are “coconut” cultures. This distinction explains a general difference in attitudes towards socializing. People in “coconut” cultures tend to be gruff and unfriendly in their daily interactions in public. They don’t easily warm to strangers. And you might get the (inaccurate) feeling that they’re mean-tempered and don’t like people. In “coconut” countries here isn’t a lot of spontaneous or unnecessary conversation in public between strangers. Russia, France, and Germany are good examples. On the other hand, in “peach” cultures, people are open, friendly, smiley and chat easily to people they barely know. They share information of a seemingly personal nature in public. The US and Canada are peach cultures, and if you’re working here, there are a few adjustments you need to make to get along and achieve your goals.

Pretending to be friends

Without making too direct a point about this, the best way to understand casual social interaction in the US workplace is that people are pretending to be friends. And they conduct their social communication according to the norms of peach culture. This means they are smiley, friendly, open, and have a tendency to share semi-personal information with everyone around them. It’s not deep and in many cases it’s not even real. This is why I describe it as “pretending to be friends.” International people tend to be a little shocked in some cases by the ease with which Americans share private information with people they don’t really know. The casual conversation with a stranger on a bus. The itemization of all the fascinating details of your sister’s wedding to some random dude you met in line at McDonalds.

It’s totally normal in peach culture America. What does it mean? Nothing really. It certainly doesn’t mean these people are friends or that they’ll ever speak to each other again. In fact, the deeper significance of the peach is that that it has a hard center. It’s soft and warm on the outside but the further in you go, the harder it gets. (People in coconut cultures are said to be the opposite!) This is why international people sometimes find it difficult to form true friendships in the US. Everyone is so friendly here, but when you try to go deeper, the relationship doesn’t truly take shape. It sometimes just evaporates like raindrops in the sunshine. Does this mean there are no true friendships here? Of course not. Americans have real friendships. It just means that we also pretend a lot. And this “pretending” is how we make the social and business relationships function smoothly.

What you need to know at work

Why am I raising all this in a simple post about building rapport with your co-workers? Because, like I said, it’s the predominant way of getting along here in social contexts. You can’t do without it. It’s how people form useful superficial bonds that help us conduct business. Small talk is a big part of this, and the technique I’m about to share with you is an integral part of small talk. But it’s also useful in other communication settings. So here it is. As I mentioned, in public, Americans like to share semi-private or personal information in order to bond and facilitate business and other social interactions.

So if you want to help them do that, how do you do it? You ask questions. Simple, open-ended, mostly superficial questions that I like to sum up as the Wh- questions: What, where, when, how and sometimes why, depending on the topic. (Sometimes it can create defensiveness to ask why so it’s often best to steer clear of it.) For example, if you’re talking to a co-worker and they mention that they went to the movies over the weekend, feel free to ask what movie it was, where they saw it, what it was about, what they thought of it, and so on. If they say that they just got back from LA, you can ask them where in LA they went, what they saw, what were the highlights, how long they were there, and the like.

So there you have it. In addition to verbally expressing emotion as I explained in the previous blog, while in the US, you can use the handy, slightly superficial “open-ended question” technique to help your American colleagues share their experience and feel closer to you. And once they feel closer, it will be easier to collaborate, build stronger relationships, and achieve your business goals with them.

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