The art of small talk has fallen out of favour: it’s often seen as superficial, boring and pointless, especially by many of us in the corporate world. How many times have you heard or made statements like “I don’t waste time on chit-chat” or “I prefer to get straight to the point”?
The problem is that we tend to overlook the true value of small talk, which (despite its name) performs some pretty big functions. In her book, Small Talk, sociolinguistics expert Dr Justine Coupland highlights the important role played by these seemingly-shallow conversations:
Small talk cannot be dismissed as peripheral, marginal or minor discourse. Small talk is a means by which we negotiate interpersonal relationships. This is a crucial function with significant implications for ongoing and future interactions.
So, this week, my message focuses on the power of small talk, and how you can get better at it.
According to Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago, connecting to other people through social pleasantries actually increases your health and happiness. In a study conducted on the Chicago Metra railroad line, he found that the simple act of striking up a light conversation with fellow passengers made the journey more enjoyable for commuters – introverts and extroverts alike. In Epley’s words:
People could improve their own wellbeing – and that of others – by simply being more social with strangers, trying to create connections where one might otherwise choose isolation.
Small talk offers numerous other benefits:
1. It’s relaxing
In her article, Americans are Terrible at Small Talk, Irish author Maeve Higgins laments the lost art of idle banter in her new country of residence, where people prefer to get right to “the heavy goods”. As Higgins explains, chatting about inconsequential things allows you to take a breath and relax in each other’s company. When you begin a casual conversation, it lets the other person know you’re friendly and interested – without forcing an intense (and possibly unwelcome) discussion onto them.
2. It’s achievable
For those who struggle with social anxiety or even plain old shyness, small talk is a gift. You don’t have to dive straight into serious topics and worry about what to say next. Instead, you can begin with a simple “hello”, followed by an observation about the weather or the food. This takes the pressure off, allowing you to step out of your shell. Even if you don’t personally suffer from social awkwardness, remember that lots of other people do. Your willingness to exchange social pleasantries can make the situation much more bearable, even enjoyable, for them.
3. It leads to “big talks”
Small talk lays the groundwork for deeper conversations. By connecting over little things, you become comfortable enough to share bigger things. Imagine meeting someone for the first time and trying to instantly learn about their most cherished dreams or closely guarded fears! A casual conversation is the first brick in paving the way for more meaningful interactions – should you choose to go there.
4. It strengthens relationships
You may think of it as pointless, but small talk is the connective tissue that holds people together on a day-to-day basis. Think about your family members and close friends. While you may sometimes discuss serious matters with them, most of your everyday communication is about things like what you ate for lunch, the traffic jam on the way home, your chance meeting with an old neighbour, etc. Sharing and listening to these small details is a huge part of what keeps your personal relationships going. So, why restrict yourself to “business only” at the workplace?
As a leader, your equations with people are at the heart of your job – and small talk goes a long way towards reinforcing those crucial bonds. When you ask a team member how their long-awaited vacation was or mention last night’s nail-biting match to a colleague who loves the sport,you’re effectively demonstrating two things: first, you care about people’s lives beyond the walls of the office, and second, you pay attention to what they tell you.
Additionally, when you share a personal detail or story, you allow co-workers a peek into your life – which lets them connect with you a little bit better.
5. It eases difficult moments
In the article, The Social Value of Small Talk, Mimi O’ Connor describes how small talk can help with stressful events:
A physician’s friendly greeting and inquiry about the patient’s family or a favourite sports team prior to an examination can soothe the anxieties around the examination…. Following a heated debate or argument, small talk can break the ice, helping us to return to a more neutral exchange. It can provide a welcome respite from the stress of accumulated tensions and still unresolved issues.
In all these ways, small talk plays a vital role in building and nurturing relationships. While this skill comes naturally to some people, others struggle with it. So, here arefour recommendations to hone your small-talk abilities:
1. Reveal interesting details
You may believe in the economy of words, but the art of chit-chat demands a more generous approach. For example, when someone asks about your weekend, you could respond in two ways: you could simply say, “It was good”, or you could elaborate, for example, “My weekend was great. We went for a family picnic to the new park. There were lots of things to do there, and my kids loved playing frisbee!”
The first response reveals nothing and halts the conversation. The second response gives your listener various details to connect with (public spaces, outdoor activities, children, nature) and carry the dialogue forward. Filling in some colour makes it easier for people to find common ground with you.
2. Ask good questions
Posing the right questions keeps a conversation flowing. This skill is especially helpful if you’re not very comfortable talking about yourself (which is why many introverts excel at it!). Avoid close-ended questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”. Instead, ask open-ended questions to elicit stories and opinions. For example, skip “Have you been to Cambodia?” and try “What’s one of your favourite travel memories?”.
Listen to people’s replies with genuine interest, so you can respond appropriately and ask follow-on questions. Remember, you’ll need to strike a balance between asking questions and sharing your own thoughts. Too much of the former will feel like an interrogation, while too much of the latter can make you seem self-centred.
3. Do your homework
Do you find yourself tongue-tied at office parties or networking events, desperately searching for something to talk about? Just a few minutes of preparation can help you be a much more confident participant. In an interview with GoodPractice, Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, recommends coming up with at least three conversation-starters before walking into a room:
A party, a meeting, a conference…I don’t walk into anything without three things to talk about in my head.
Keep the context in mind while thinking of ideas. For a local networking event, you could turn to city news and events for inspiration (but steer clear of potentially controversial topics, like politics). At an international conference, you could mention an intriguing industry-related article or share an amusing anecdote from your journey. Fine also practices responding to common questions like “What do you do?” or “How are you?”. Trade short, bland answers for more engaging responses. When describing your work, for example, could you talk about a project you’re working on?
4. Read the signs
Small talk only works if both people are having fun, so pay attention to the reactions of your listener. If they start looking uncomfortable or cornered, try changing the topic. If they appear restless or there’s a longish lull, it might be time to wrap up the chat. If you’re both getting along well and the conversation is flowing easily, carry on and enjoy yourself.
In her Forbes piece, An Introvert’s Guide to Small Talk, Christina Park sums up the value of small talk beautifully:
Instead of dwelling on negative thoughts (“I’m awful at this,” “I hate small talk,” or “when can I go home?”), remind yourself that small talk isn’t superficial. Small talk serves an important purpose – it helps build the foundation for authentic conversations and deeper relationships down the road. Think of small talk as the light appetizer before the main course, and approach it with renewed purpose.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts.