The extent to which many Americans share personal information and what they share may differ from yours. How to deal with that? Recently someone kindly shared her experience about networking in the U.S. I loved her story and conclusion. She explained that on multiple occasions, the US host asked the entire group to share something personal that the participants had never shared with anyone before. “What, no way!” is what some participants thought. These happened to be two individuals from Northern European cultural backgrounds.
Sharing personal information
What is appropriate in one culture may be shocking in another. Many Americans are more used to sharing personal information and asking personal questions to strangers. Erin Meyer uses a nice metaphor for this: “Americans are like peaches”. Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner talk about the U-type (based on Lewin’s circles).
Hard shell or soft skin
Things get really interesting when a “peach” with a soft skin meets a person from a “coconut” culture. The American host may not have realized that certain topics are in the inner private space of others, well protected by the shell of the coconut. So they don’t talk about it or ask questions about it. If you do, it’s shocking. In their culture, it may even be perceived as unprofessional to share personal matters in a business setting.
Kindness ≠ friendship
Imagine that you will go to a business meeting in the U.S and you decide to share a private matter, and bravely allow yourself to be vulnerable for the sake of the process. While listening to others who are also opening up, you may start to feel, “This is incredible, I just made friends for life.” Please be aware that kindness is interpreted as friendship in some cultures, but in other cultures kindness is kindness. After sharing these special moments, it can be business as usual.
Use the American Sandwich
Let’s say you really don’t want to share personal information. How do you deal with that? You may consider explaining it. Something like, “I appreciate you breaking the ice and building trust in this way. But, wow, this is outside my comfort zone. This is completely new to me and I don’t know what to say. Where I come from, we don’t do this or only with intimates. So it feels scary and uncomfortable. So in a way I answered your question, because for me to admit this and talk about it is vulnerable in itself. I hope you understand. I appreciate your courage and that you are starting this meeting in such a creative and fresh way”. (Use the American Sandwich. Start with something positive, negative news in the middle, end with positive aspect).
Back to the real networking story in the US. I won’t tell you the details, but the participants started to tell who they were and shared something personal and so did one of the brave women from Northern Europe. The amazing fact was that the ice was broken very quickly. She felt that she had an immediate connection with some of them who came to her and really related to what she just shared. She concluded that this made it easier to talk about businesses afterwards. It opened doors.
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