Different people from different cultures have different ways of conversing.

Even men and women of the same nationality converse in a different way. Various researchers in the US and UK have shown that in many countries in the West, women tend to disclose more about themselves than men, and men tend to focus more on their accomplishments and sport. Women often use more words and give more details than men, with the consequence that men ‘tune out’. In a work environment women tend to take things more literally, and men tend be more lacking in sensitivity. Finally, men tend to interrupt more in a discussion or conversation than women.

The dialog below is an example of what in many countries would be considered as an unsuccessful conversation. The two speakers have never met before and they are waiting for a presentation to begin at a conference.

 

  • Sorry, is this seat taken?
  • No.
  • There are a lot of people here for this session, aren’t there?
  • Yes, there seem to be.
  • Do you know the presenter? I think she is from Harvard.
  • Yes.
  • Hi, my name’s Eriko Suzuki, I work for a Japanese pharmaceutical company. And you?
  • I’m in medical research.
  • What kind of medical research if I can ask?
  • Smoking related diseases.
  • Really? That’s interesting because we are developing some medicine to help smokers stop smoking.
  • Oh.
  • I work in the research department there and we are looking for collaborations. (…pause…) So is this your first time in Vienna?
  • No, I have been here many times.
  • Many times?
  • Yes.
  • Oh, I have just seen a colleague of mine over there. Bye.

The dialog is exaggerated, but highlights a common problem in conversations—ones that are completely one-sided. The woman (in normal script in the dialog) is trying to be friendly, but the man (in italics) rejects all her attempts at getting the conversation going. It may simply be that the man is shy and / or is worried about not speaking good English. But the impression he gives to the woman is that he simply does not wish to communicate. This leads to a breakdown in the communication and the result is that the man misses a possible opportunity to collaborate with the pharmaceutical company where the woman works.

Below is a different version of the same dialog. Note how the two speakers:

  • immediately start a friendly conversation
  • share experiences
  • show interest in what the other person is saying
  • repeat back the same question that they have been asked
  • repeat back what their interlocutor has just said to encourage him / her to continue
  • avoid dominating the conversation and take equal responsibility for its success
  • interrupt a pause in the conversation by referring back to what the other said earlier

The context of the dialog is the same, but the dynamics are very different.

  • Sorry, is this seat taken?
  • No sorry I just put my bag here that’s all. I’ll just move it so you can sit down.
  • Thanks. There are a lot of people here for this session, aren’t there?
  • Yes, I think we are all here to hear the professor from Harvard, she’s supposed to be really good.
  • Yeah, I have read a lot of her papers. Really excellent. Have you come far to be here?
  • Well not too far, from Berlin actually. And you?
  • From Berlin wow! I’ve come from Tokyo I work for a pharmaceutical company. I’m Eriko, by the way.
  • Klaus. Pleased to meet you. So you work for a pharmaceutical company?
  • Yes, I am in the research department. We are developing an anti-smoking drug.
  • Well that’s a coincidence. At my lab we are working on smoking-related diseases.
  • Well I must introduce you to my boss, he will be interested.
  • Great idea, maybe you could introduce him to me after this morning’s sessions.
  • Yeah, definitely. So you were saying you are from Berlin, do you mean you were born there?

 

The keys to a successful conversation are:

  • take equal responsibility for keeping the conversation going
  • introduce new topics naturally—don’t jump from one topic to another
  •  link what you say to what other person has just said
  • show interest