The ability to hold conversation is, apparently, one of the skills Americans value most in their everyday lives. Certainly, if you can pick up any topic and easily build up on it increases your chances to establish strong connection with a person. But is this skill really worth all the buzz? Especially when you keep moving between the continents? After coming back from New York and spending some time in Moscow I decided to explore the cultural differences between the two countries.
Russian people are notoriously known for being reserved and introverted. People here, in general, do not do small talk, do not express their opinion unless they are asked for it and tend to avoid any sort of confrontation. If you are an American talking to Russian, you would most probably feel like you are the only one pulling all the weights in the conversation.
Perhaps, Russia’s unique positioning between Asia and Europe can provide insight into our this weird dynamic of Russian conversations. Our population is torn between western and eastern mentalities: we acquired western freedoms on the one hand and eastern disposition to accept destiny on the other. This mix of contradicting in some points cultural aspects produced conversation style based on questions and answers rather than building upon facts and making independent conclusions – techniques that Americans tend to favor. While Americans expect you to constantly capitalize on a single conversation topic by putting out continuous layers of information, Russians would abruptly shift between different topics. Also Russians consider it imperative to finish everything they say with a question. Americans on the other hand rarely ask any questions at all, it does not mean though that they are not interested in your opinion – they will use gestures or look into your eyes to show that the ball is in your court – in other words the invitation to speak is there, but it is not verbally expressed. If you are not good at reading inconspicuous signs, you might find American conversations very egocentric, which was exactly my thoughts during my first year in New York, however it is very far from truth.
While an attempt to mitigate cultural differences between our countries might be too ambitious, I will try to point out areas that cause most misunderstanding.
Unstoppable conversation flow
Awkward silence is the worst American nightmare. Ultimately, all kinds of silence fall under the category “awkward”, regardless whether it is embraced or mutually dreaded by the opponents. So many times I would find myself in New York museum and so engaged into conversation that it was almost impossible to observe and enjoy the exhibition itself. Americans thus treat conversations almost like business meetings – silence in such case is a waste of precious time. Contrastingly, Russians seek and cherish silence, they treat it as a necessary break and a way to switch their attention.
Small talk is a one sure way to avoid silence. While I find it a bit tiring to be dragged into empty chatter on an everyday basis, I agree that small talk is important. Since it does not require much effort but can lead to some incredible results such as meeting new people, establishing closer connections with the co workers and quenching thirst for social interactions, small talk’s return on investment is unexpectedly high.
Interactions with strangers are strongly discouraged in Russian culture resulting in one’s extremely narrow social circle. Americans on the other hand are famously known for their openness and ability to start conversations with total strangers. Nevertheless, sometimes Americans would over analyze relatively meaningless topics and take small talk to a level of scientific research, so again balance is the key here – when small talk’s initial purpose is recognized and accepted it becomes a powerful tool for networking and building rapport.
Both American and Russian societies consider interruptions rude. Americans are usually concerned about keeping pace as fast as possible, so they would rush to share their thoughts and ideas, leaving no room for brief pauses. Russians are not only inclined to keep thoughts to themselves, but also require more time to create links, draw conclusions and present them to the opponent.The common negative national stereotypes of loud obnoxious Americans and apathetic cold Russians are therefore reinforced by frustration experienced by both nations during conversations. It does not help the overall tension that Russian conversation style is more descriptive and story-based – instead of dissecting an already sound example and building up on it, Russians will give you yet another story to strengthen the point – a detour, that leaves most westerners startled.
There is, of course, no perfect conversation style. We are all affected by society’s accepted norms and standards. Understandably, when moving to another country we have to adhere to those standards rather than defy them, accepting it as the easiest path to assimilation. As a frequent traveller though you are given the unique opportunity to witness cultural differences, sift through positives and negatives and may be even create a perfectly balanced, universal conversation style, that will give you an undeniable edge in an increasingly global market.