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What small talk means to some businessmen

Q: My colleague and I were in the final stages of a proposal to a Filipino-Chinese (Fil-Chi) business family.

The younger generations quickly approved the agreement, but we found it challenging to deal with the founder. We had an hour to present on Zoom, but for the first hour, this 80-year-old made small talk. He asked about our schools, families, interests, then he went on about the pandemic, the economy, politics. We enjoyed the chat, but wondered if he was lonely and needed people to talk to. Then in the last 20 minutes, he brought up our proposal, asked a couple of questions, and said it was a go. We were so relieved, but we want to ask: Is small talk usually the practice in the Fil-Chi community?

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My reply: It is natural to make small talk to break the ice when first meeting someone, regardless of ethnicity. Small talk is the staple of cocktail parties.

However, I am not sure if small talk is the usual practice, especially among the younger generation in Fil-Chi business, who are much influenced by Western education, media and mindset. You said you came to an agreement quickly with them. They already likely prioritized the matter, and did due diligence, without doing small talk.

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But after decades of dealing with remarkable founders, Fil-Chi or Filipino, I discovered that small talk is indispensable for several of them. What you experienced has happened to me, when small talk felt like an extended two-way interview, as we sized up each other and figured out if we could trust one another.

What I know for sure is that small talk, when initiated by wise and experienced people, is never pointless, however unrelated it seems to the topic at hand.

In their book “101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People,” Yi and Bryan Ellis contrast meetings with US and Chinese businesspeople.

In the West, “meetings often begin with some introductions and the participants go into the heart of the matter. They discuss issues very directly, clearly stake out their positions, and drive at a conclusion at the end of each discussion.”

This is how most of us are trained to make meetings productive.

But in China, “most of the meeting time is spent talking about everything but the key issues or decisions to be resolved. It is very indirect, with a lot of time spent on finding common ground and understanding on minor topics … But then at the very end … [there would] be a short amount of time discussing the most important issues.”

Or perhaps your client was lonely, as you said, and wanted someone to talk to. But I congratulate you for patiently and kindly talking with him, which bodes well for your working together.

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On grit

Q: My husband and I loved your talk in our son’s school about grit. We want him to take a course that is useful for our family business, but he wants to take it easy in college. You linked learning struggles with brain connections. Can you elaborate on this?

My reply: Let your son choose his college major, or else he will blame you if he becomes miserable in your selected course. But I agree he needs to develop grit now, especially if he wants to work in the family business later on.

Tell him what Daniel Coyle says in “The Little Book of Talent.” Coyle says, “Most of us instinctively avoid struggle, because it’s uncomfortable. It feels like failure. However … it’s a biological necessity … The struggle and frustration you feel at the edges of your abilities … is the sensation of constructing new neural connections, a phenomenon that … psychologist Robert Bjork calls ‘desirable difficulty.’ Your brain works just like your muscles: no pain, no gain.”

With his mental and emotional well-being in mind, guide your son to embrace struggles that help him grow, rather than escaping from them.

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” via Lazada, or the ebook version on Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected]

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