Cultural Talks: Small Talk and Professional Communication

It is common for a person in Canada to say to a colleague, “How are you?” The other responds, “Fine, and you?”. This happens even between strangers on the bus, in the shopping mall, and between parents who are waiting to pick up their young children at school. It happens between people in the Canadian workplace every day. It seems personal and caring, and it can be, but often it is not. It is the start of small talk.

In the Canadian workplace culture, small talk is common, and also very important. Of the many words spoken between colleagues during the week, many are not about work and issues concerning the job. Small talk is the way people in the Canadian workplace get to know one another. After the initial introduction, small talk is also the main way people strengthen their sense of ‘team’ and appreciation for working together.

If all the words exchanged in a workplace were about technical issues, this would be a very boring place to work when measured by Canadian standards.

Small talk may need to ‘turn off’ in some situations of stress. However, stressful workplaces do not always miss out on small talk either. Imagine the hospital where surgeons and nurses are operating on a patient, trying to save a person’s life. While high levels of concentration are required to not make dangerous mistakes, focusing on the same surgery for hours and hours could be difficult without the surgeon asking, “Has anyone heard a good joke lately?”. Telling a joke may seem inappropriate on the surface, but it is needed in surgery to keep people’s stress levels lower. To make sure the mind stays focused for another stretch of time.

There are topics that are ‘okay’, and there are other topics that are ‘out of bounds’. People from many countries all over the world have differing views of small talk in the workplace. What is an acceptable topic in one culture might not be an appropriate topic in another country.

In some countries, it may be common to ask about a person’s family, “Are you married?” This question is probably too intrusive for the Canadian workplace. It’s better to wait for the person to talk about his or her family. Canadians do not talk about how much money they make, and contracts often keep them from telling others what their income or salary is. Canadians don’t usually ask how much someone spent on a purchase. If they need to ask, they will ask for permission first, “Do you mind if I ask you a financial question?”

Small talk, has other names in the Canadian workplace. You also hear it called ‘watercooler talk’. The conversation that happens around break times is like the surgeon asking if someone has heard a good joke. People are looking for a mental break from stress. They are stretching their legs after sitting at a desk or operating a dangerous machine for two hours.

Small talk happens between many levels of workers within a company. People in Canada are fairly professional and friendly when it comes to relating to one another. While Canadians are still professional in their work, we are less formal than we used to be.

The respect afforded a supervisor 50 years ago in the Canadian workplace meant that you would call the person by his or her title and family name, such as Mr. Smith. By the 1980’s you noticed a cultural shift in that you could now often call your supervisor by his or her first name, but he or she gets the same amount of respect.

Fitting into a workplace culture means you are trying to fit into a moving car. Culture does not stand still as it is always changing. Aiming to hit a moving target means that people need to be keen observers of culture. Always be looking for cultural expressions. How are people acting? What are they saying? How long are they taking for their lunch breaks?

You may be trying to learn how exactly you should behave in your future Canadian workplace. There is no one workplace culture that fits for all of Canada. There are only generalizations. Even two law firms on the same street in the same city have different workplace cultures concerning how formally people communicate, and what clothing is considered professional. People wanting to know about the definitive way to work in a Canadian way have no guarantees. Generalizations can help, but people must still train their eyes and ears to observe the specifics.

The courses within the SOPA program, are meant to help people arrive prepared, or as prepared as possible. Advice over the internet needs to be compared with the reality of the workplace situations in which people find themselves, after arriving in Canada.

SOPA facilitators want our clients to feel prepared for job searching and acquiring a job, but if that’s all that’s achieved, there is one piece missing. After receiving the job, we want people to be able to keep the job.

There are times when colleagues invite you for coffee and say, “Are you coming?” but you are forced to reply, “No thank you.” Perhaps you give the follow-up excuse about needing to leave work earlier that day or having so much work to do. Generally, though you should go and get to know your colleagues. If they do not invite you, you could invite them instead.

You do not need to be an expert English communicator. You do not have to enjoy coffee. You do not have to start the conversations. Sometimes, you don’t even have to pay! You simply have to go and participate. Be genuine in your interest in the topics that are brought up. People may be more forward and talk about their families and ask you about yours. “So, are you married? Do you have any kids?”

Small talk should be friendly. In order to be friendly, Canadians will often offer a smile as part of their conversation, and often expect a smile back. This does not mean they are being flirtatious as this might appear in some cultures. They are being friendly. Some cultures smile less and some more.

Martin Blumrich

The worst thing that might happen in small talk is when your colleagues go silent and then look at you to provide a topic of conversation. There are many “safe” topics to choose from that will help you feel comfortable in this situation. You can ask people how long they have worked for this company. You can ask people what their favourite part of the job is, though some might say they are experiencing it right at that moment: “My favourite part is Coffee Break!”

Small talk should be friendly. In order to be friendly, Canadians will often offer a smile as part of their conversation, and often expect a smile back. This does not mean they are being flirtatious as this might appear in some cultures. They are being friendly. Some cultures smile less and some more. Smiling might be approached with suspicion, as someone might think, “Why are you smiling at me?”

One of the greatest skills people can practice in preparation for small talk is asking “open-ended questions.” Open-ended questions have many possible answers. Closed-ended questions have very few possible answers, and are usually limited to answers of either “yes” or “no.” Asking questions that begin with certain wording almost certainly will mean that people are going to ask either a closed-ended or open-ended question.

Examples of words that begin closed-ended questions would be things like:

  • Do you like…?
  • Have you ever…?
  • When did you…?

There just are not many options for these answers, and unless the person answering wants to give more details, you can imagine it becoming a short topic of conversation.

Examples of words that begin open-ended questions would include:

  • What do you think about…?
  • Can you tell me a little about…?
  • Can you give me advice on this idea I have?

Soft skills are those skills related to working with people. You usually do not take a course in them, because it is life, family, and culture that teach you these rules.

The good news is that with greater cultural diversity, and the need for better economic integration, soft skills are getting more attention than ever before. People working with newcomers to Canada have seen the problem of ‘great résumé, great interview’ but ‘unsuccessful in keeping the job’ far too often. People who understand how Canadians work with soft skills increase their chances of succeeding in the workplace. Our clients increase their confidence by asking questions that compare their current situations with their potential situations, through email, web chats, and live online meetings.

Developing your soft skills according to Canadian cultural standards is as important as looking for a job. You may have high levels of soft skills according to your current culture’s standards, but they need to be rebuilt from the ground up. The newcomer arriving in Canada already has all the soft skills that are likely to be required for success, somewhere in their personal history. They may not have practiced them recently in the workplace, however.

SOPA soft skills courses will help you take stock of all the LEGO bricks needed for success in Canada, including topics in soft skills, not just limited to small talk and how important it is for communication.

There are few courses that will discuss soft skills at all, including increasing people’s understanding of soft skills related to communication in the Canadian workplace. Small talk is just the beginning, and there are so many other topics that can be discussed. All of the soft skills topics will help people who have been planning to arrive prepared, to be that much more prepared to keep their new jobs once they have been attained. Check out our two other articles written by our Cultural Communication Facilitator in Manitoba, Martin Blumrich on topics such as diversity in working, workplace communication and fit. We present them to you because we are people who care about your preparation for success in Canada.

Approved to immigrate to Canada? Join us in our SOPA courses before your arrival to prepare your résumé and your mindset for Canadian success!

Martin Blumrich | SOPA Manitoba | Cultural Communications Facilitator

Martin has dedicated his career to helping people improve their lives. He has worked with newcomers from over 40 countries to make their homes in Manitoba, Canada. Involved in adult education his entire career, he provides “Canadian experience” through cultural communications courses online. An informative and entertaining speaker, Martin delivers specialized workshops on issues ranging from religious diversity to the soft skills needed to succeed in diverse workplace cultures.


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