Intercultural challenge to work abroad: Breaking the Ice

One of the key challenges that arise from doing business internationally involves coming up with the proper ice breaker, the conversation that opens up a first meeting, or any meeting for that matter. Setting a good first impression plays an important role in establishing a positive work relationship. This becomes even more of a challenge when working in a cross-border setting. I’d like to share a few tips and observations from my own experience working in Europe.

“The most dangerous world view is the world view of those who have not viewed the world.”

Alexander von Humboldt

You’ve spent a lot time and effort to get a meeting with a new prospect in a new country. You have done your homework on the business side of the potential, but now you need to start thinking about making a good first impression. You want to open up the meeting by talking about something that is of interest to them (and to you naturally). It’s no use pretending to be interested in a topic just to please them. The lack of authenticity will become evident quickly.

You have an important meeting in Dublin, Ireland. Your contact is called Finn. You have sincere interest in Irish Celtic history and you know that Finn (or Fionn in old Irish) was an important figure in Irish mythology. For this meeting, you brush up on your history and read about Fionn mac Cumhail, the legendary Irish mythological hero who became all-wise by eating an enchanted salmon. You bring this up during the opening of the meeting and next thing you know, you’ve had a fascinating 15-min conversation about Irish mythology with your counterpart, and both of you are now ready to talk business.

London is your next stop. You are going to visit an existing customer, but a new contact. You saw on his LinkedIn profile that he coaches his kids’ rugby team. In England, football is usually an easy ice breaker, but there are so many interesting topics to discuss when it comes to the UK. You decide to stick to what works and brush up on the recently played Six Nations Rugby tournament, which England won by winning the Grand Slam. As it turns out, your new contact attended the England vs France match in Old Twickenham and his voice hasn’t fully recovered from the experience. After a very positive meeting, you’ve been invited to watch a rugby match next time you’re in London.

You are in Brussels and about to start a meeting with a brand new prospect. Unfortunately, you didn’t have enough time to prepare your ice breaker. What can you bring up to start the conversation? You take a chance. You mention that one of your favorite singers is the Belgian Jacques Brel (which is true), hoping that your contact feels the same way. You’re in luck! Your contact is big fan and you spend the first 15 minutes of the meeting discussing your favorite Brel songs and movies.

Your next meeting takes place in Paris. France has a rich culture; there are plenty of topics to choose from. The company you are meeting in Paris has its HQ in Bordeaux. Wine, you think, can’t go wrong. You begin the meeting by talking a little about Bordeaux, and casually mentioning that one of your favorite wines is St. Estèphe. As it turns out, your contact travels 4 times a year to Bordeaux for meetings and always brings back a few local bottles that almost always includes a St. Estèphe. After a pleasant 15-minute discussion on French wines, with me doing most of the listening, the conversation turns to work. The initial stress has been removed and both sides are now at ease.

Ultimately, you want the ice breaker to be an honest intent on your part to connect with the person, or people, with whom you are meeting before the actual business discussion begins. You want to break the ice with an interesting and engaging topic that interests all sides. Typically, these types of conversations can often be limited to sports, but they don’t have to be. It’s up to you to find mutual interests for you and your counterpart to discuss. Consider this the fun part of preparing for a meeting in a foreign country.

Eduardo Miccolis

Initially posted on LinkedIn


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