In relationship-driven countries, what is considered personal and private differs substantially from the privacy cocoon found in most transactional cultures. When traveling or assigned abroad, someone from a transactional country often faces challenges in a more relationship-focused country, where it is accepted that personal questions are asked in order to get to know more about someone and find possible connections.
In most countries where the foundation for business is personal relationships, initial meetings with a company or an individual involve a great deal of small talk. It is only when the local is comfortable and knows something about you as a person that they can decide they want to do business with you.
Business travelers and expats can expect to be asked questions about their trip, home, experience of the country they have traveled to, personal health, and the health of their family.
What fascinates me is that after the basics, the questions asked and the best responses seem to be regionally focused.
At times it seems that any interaction leads to a series of personal questions, many of which focus on money. This is especially disconcerting when you are from a highly transactional culture where money is not discussed, even among friends.
Waiting in a taxi queue at the airport I have been asked, "How much did your luggage cost? What kind of car do you drive at home? How much did it cost? How much did your house cost? What is a normal rent there?" These questions are from a total stranger. Once you get to know the person, the questions become even more personal, such as, "Why are you here? How many children do you have? How much money do you earn?"
These questions should not be ignored if they come from someone you will come into contact with again, since refusing to answer the question will label you as arrogant or someone who thinks very highly of themselves.
When answering, clever responses may do the trick. The question of costs can be handled by the pat phrase, "too much" when referring to the cost of items at home.
If asked about children, turn the question around immediately. This allows you to compliment the person by saying, "You look so young to be a parent to so many children."
Both men and women are frequently asked about their marital status and whether or not they have children. For a woman business traveler, the question of children is quite frequent due to the importance placed on family.
Women can expect to be asked, "Are you married? How many children do you have?" followed by the potential landmine question "Who is watching the children?"
If you are traveling internationally, there is an immediate concern for your children. The natural assumption is that the husband also works, so he would not be available to take on childcare duties.
The best response is to say either your or your husband's parents are caring for the kids, even if that is not the case. Since group cultures tend to live close by extended family, saying a family member is watching the children is readily understood.
In largely agrarian countries where wealth is determined by land, which often determines when and if someone may marry, men are subjected to frequent questions: "Why are you not married? You must have children." To the East African, if you don't have children, you have no one to leave your property to.
Expats and business travelers are often asked, "Don’t you miss your family?" Technology helps with this question; it allows you to give a resounding "Yes! I miss my family." This can then be followed up with a recitation of the various forms of social media you use to stay in touch.
General Tips for Addressing Personal Questions
- Ask the person the same question they asked you. This gives you the opportunity to discover the depth of the response required and also provides insight into the person. Remember, this is a getting-to-know-you exercise.
- Remind yourself that these questions are being asked as a way to get to know you. They are not prying to be nosey or judgmental, even if it seems that way. This is how they have been taught to learn about other people.
- Prepare acceptable responses for the most common questions in advance. Keep your responses light and friendly.
- Tell the truth or a good story very close to the truth. You may meet the person many times in the future, so you don't want to keep a detailed diary of what story you told in each location.