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"I learned how to make the transition from small talk to big connections."

Coming Out of Your Comfort Zone: Mansi Gulati, MBA '18

Mansi Gulati, MBA '18

by Faust Nunez '17
February 14, 2017

In her native India, Mansi Gulati, MBA ’18 had developed her professional career without ever needing to step far outside of her comfort zone. When she moved to the United States to attend Brandeis International Business School (IBS), everything changed. It all started with a haircut.  

“The stylist talked about everything from hairstyles in magazines to the weather to her own wedding! I don’t dislike talking to people, but I was so unaccustomed to hearing these personal details from someone I hadn’t met before,” she said. “Shortly after, I attended a networking event where each candidate spent at least 15 minutes with the interviewer. I could only manage five and couldn’t find an interesting topic to indulge them in. I knew this problem wasn’t going to go away now that I was in the United States.” 

The ability to engage in small-talk conversations was meaningful to Mansi beyond just socialization. She hopes to enter the competitive field of strategic consulting, and in the business world, strong relationships launched through meaningful conversations form the foundation for a successful career. In Professor Andy Molinsky’s Global Dexterity class, she could apply her struggle with real-world soft skills against coursework to help her develop an aptitude for social interactions. 

In Molinsky’s class, students learn to “adapt [their] behavior to new cultural contexts without losing [their] authentic self in the process.” Students in the class are asked to “diagnose” their cultural code against American behaviors to better understand where they might want to adapt. From there, they try to understand what causes their discomfort and to tackle the cultural shift with small but powerful steps. For Mansi, the identification was the easy part. “I think it’s a mix of my culture and personality that has made small talk difficult for me,” she reflected in the first few weeks of the project. “In the Indian culture, we are not expected to talk to strangers, especially if it is not a professional setting. Plus, I’m an introvert, which was another limiting factor at the start.” 

She began with small steps, such as hosting small dinner parties or taking an Uber to and from school to increase the opportunities to practice small talk. “Every time I ride a cab, I make sure I talk to the driver about how his day is going, how the weather is, and sometimes, when the ride is long, we kind of talk about our hometowns, too.” As professional opportunities arose throughout the semester, these seemingly innocent conversations in the cab left her more prepared and more comfortable to rise to the challenge at networking events and in interviews. 

In a real-world show-and-tell, students in Molinsky’s class share their final projects in a museum-style setting. Through animated videos, decorated posters and other mediums, students embrace the challenges they’ve faced and the triumphs they’ve found in overcoming behaviors that were once foreign and uncomfortable to them. 

As an international student transitioning to American-style classrooms, social culture and business behaviors, the class and its related work have been a critical turning point for Mansi, both as an introvert and as an international student. For her, the final class was a celebration of the hard work she had put into overcoming her fear of small talk – and a reminder of the work that remains. 

“The class aligned perfectly with the natural conflicts I was dealing with,” she says. “I learned how to make the change from small talk to big connections. It’s not something you learn in a month or two, but I’m much more confident, prepared and happy.”