One of the most scary moments for foreign speakers of English is getting a client or customer from the reception desk to the office. 20 seconds in a lift can feel like 3 hours. Suddenly you realise all your hours of business English in negotiation, meeting management and presentations has not helped you prepare for the most simple of moments and while you can talk about how an industrial pump works you don´t have any small talk vocabulary. Your school lessons about the weather, all the transport vehicle names have gone in one ear and out the other and you can´t translate the name of the latest movie you have seen. The first impression you are giving is that you are shy or too arrogant to talk. It´s every business English students worst nightmare!
Preparing small talk can help you feel more in control and more confident in your day to day business tasks and can help you build friendly and open relationships with clients and colleagues of all nationalities. Of course most cultures will focus on talking about the weather, your journey, perhaps some interesting news topic. We also tend to have similar rules about what not to talk about; politics and religion, illness and your private life - though family related topics are making their way into the small talk category. Talking lightly about your family (nothing too serious, personal or intense) is now considered acceptable in most business circles.
It´s a good idea to "test the waters", to start with the safe topics and if you feel you are relating well with your counterpart, build up to more familiar themes but remember not too personal.
It´s also important to consider the culture of you interlocutor. Latino cultures are often much more open and expressive and may even consider talking about family to be an essential part of bonding. By holding back in these exchanges you may even risk looking closed, it may even suggest you aren´t able to be honest.
In contrast Russians will be shocked and confused by very open conversations on a first meeting. Even over time Russians may remain quite closed.
It doesn´t matter whether our counterpart´s culture is more closed or open as long as we are aware of their culture and don´t over step the mark and invade their comfort zone. Cross cultural awareness is a useful tool in any business and for travellers too. You can show respect and kindness by honouring it.