How to talk to your American co-workers

Have you ever felt that it’s hard to talk with your American co-workers or colleagues? Maybe it’s no problem when the conversation is technical or about a project, but when it’s casual or just “small talk,” that’s when it gets hard. Many international professionals have told me that this is one of the most difficult aspects of their work. So in this blog, I’m going to give you some tips on how to talk more easily to your American co-workers.

But first, here’s a great article in the Harvard Business review explaining why small talk here is so important to your business success

And as the article explains, a lot of this has to do with cultural differences. Conversation culture here might be very different. Americans tend to share and discuss personal stories that to you might seem a little awkward. Or they discuss topics you’re not very familiar with. I want to share some strategies and some ways to overcome this challenge.

Because as mentioned in the HBR article, not being able to engage in casual conversation can hurt our status at a company and our career in some cases. The ability to socialize and interact naturally is critical not just for survival but for success and working well with your colleagues.

Ok so here are some tips and guidelines I often share with clients to help overcome this problem.

How to Engage

First, some basic best practices on how to talk to your American co-workers:

1.Be curious and ask Wh- questions. Don’t just ask how their weekend was. Ask what they did. If they went out of town, ask where they went or if they did anything interesting. “Have you been there before? What were the highlights?”  

2.Share your experience. This seems obvious, but feel free to talk about anything that comes to mind that’s similar or related.

Which brings me to….

3. It’s ok to redirect the conversation if you’re not sure how to follow up on what they said. “Speaking of __________….” is a great phrase you can use to transition to a different topic that might be more familiar and easy to discuss. 

Let’s say your co-worker mentions that she went to Colorado last week on vacation and she and her partner visited some great restaurants. Maybe you know nothing about Colorado or don’t have an interest in that. That’s fine. You can say, “speaking of restaurants, I found a great German place downtown this weekend!”

Use your research skills! 

4.Research the culture. I know it sounds a little boring, but you might need to learn more about the US in order to understand the conversations going on around you. Sometimes we spend a lot of our down time watching shows and videos from our own country. And American culture gets lost in the shuffle.

Here are some examples of topics to learn more about:

  • Learn the local sports teams (and their rivals). Who are the players? Is the team good this year?
  • Ask about the Netflix shows people are watching and check them out.  Also, learn the names of popular movies in English, not just in your language!
  • Learn about regional differences in the US and in your local area. There are distinctions in culture, vibe, personality, food and many other things in the US. Find out why New Orleans is famous. Or Seattle. What are the differences between NY and LA? Etc.

Some common conversation topics:

Anyway, I’d like to close with some common conversation topics:

  • Travel, food
  • Neighborhoods and local culture – in big cities, neighborhoods have unique characteristics, shops, cafes, etc.
  • Where are you from originally? 
  • Cultural differences between regions – LA vs SF, East Coast vs West Coast, South vs Midwest
  • Transportation
  • Social media, apps, internet, YT channels
  • What kind of internet stuff do you follow / like?
  • Hobbies
  • Pets
  • Seasonal conversation

The main thing is to try little by little. It might take time to become proficient, but like everything else, you’ll get better and more confident as you do it!

And here’s a little more detailed blog post on this same topic:


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