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The Social Value of Small Talk

Often employed in brief exchanges, we tend to dismiss it as superficial and even unnecessary. But a closer look shows that small talk has real value and purpose. Small talk is like an invitation. It acts to engage and prime the pump for more expanded interaction.
03/04/2016 08:31am ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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By Mimi O' Connor

Small talk is generally defined as conversation about things that are not of any great importance. Often employed in brief exchanges, we tend to dismiss it as superficial and even unnecessary. But a closer look shows that small talk has real value and purpose. Small talk is like an invitation. It acts to engage and prime the pump for more expanded interaction.

Dr. Justine Coupland is an expert in the field of sociolinguistics, which is the study of language in relation to social factors. In her book, Small Talk, she provides comprehensive analysis of the powerful and positive effect that small talk has in social interactions. She writes, "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."

Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, takes it a step further. He agrees with Aristotle's famous argument that "man is by nature a social animal." He has observed that feeling socially connected increases happiness and health, whereas feeling disconnected is depressing and unhealthy. His research supports these observations. He writes, "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."

He conducted a study about small talk with daily commuters on the Chicago Metra railroad line. In one experiment he divided research subjects into three different groups. In one group he asked commuters to refrain from speaking to other commuters. He asked another group to initiate conversation with another passenger. A final group received no instruction.

Epley reported these results in an article for the Chicago Tribune. "Commuters asked to interact with other passengers reported having the most pleasant commute. Commuters asked to enjoy their solitude reported the least pleasant commute. We found the same results among both introverts and extroverts."

Small Talk Helps to Calm and Center Us in the Present Moment

It's very common for many of us to feel uncomfortable or nervous in a social situation. Whether we admit to it or not, everyone fears the possibility of rejection. These fears can cause sweaty palms and make us feel tongue-tied if and when we do open our mouths to speak. Through small talk we have a vehicle to aid us in overcoming these self-imposed limitations and insecurities. By shifting the focus from ourselves to others, we can transform our anxious self-talk from, "I never know what to say" to, "What I can do is say hello and show interest in another person."

In his book, Talking with Confidence for the Painfully Shy, Don Gabor recounts a story about President Franklin Roosevelt. He writes that Roosevelt believed that most people would be better at small talk if they were just better listeners. To prove his point, Roosevelt often tested his house guests by greeting saying, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." He most often received a puzzled, but polite nod of approval. One evening, however, a particular guest delighted him with her listening skills by responding immediately with, "I'm sure she had it coming!"

Benefits of Small Talk

Provides Essential Building Block of Connection

We all have an intrinsic need to not only be seen, but also to be heard. It's this dual recognition that fosters the respect, harmony, and togetherness that we need to build our relationships. Small talk has the power to open the door of interaction and invite another person into a reciprocal exchange in a non-threatening and welcoming manner. Light and casual conversation is an easy way to let another know that you are approachable, friendly, and interested. When you offer a light-hearted comment or ask or answer simple questions, you let the other person know that you are receptive and willing to communicate.

Small talk brings us into the present moment with one another. Those first few minutes of contact can form a positive first impression that ignites a desire to know more about each other. A few words of care can bring us together. This can occur whether simply saying "Bless You" when a stranger sneezes to offering, "Hey, how are you feeling today?" to a co-worker recovering from an illness.

As the proverb states, "The tongue is the rudder of the ship." Our words of salutation and connection can turn a solitary experience into a shared one, steering us away from loneliness and onward to greater connection.

Makes Transitions Easier

Small talk can act as the bookends of our comings and goings. Small talk allows us to move more easily between our various roles, be they personal or professional. To be able to greet one another in a cordial and warm manner prior to a medical procedure or before starting a difficult work project helps immeasurably with easing into the process or task ahead. A physician's friendly greeting and inquiry about the patient's family or a favorite sports team prior to an examination can soothe the anxieties around the examination. This indispensable small talk helps to strengthen the therapeutic relationship. It contributes greatly to the familiarity and trust that forms the launching pad for further cooperative treatment. At the end of a business meeting, a party or a job interview, engaging in small talk can bring gentle and appreciative closure.

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. "I know we have more to discuss, but I could use something to drink. Would you like something? Maybe we could try that new tea we bought yesterday."

Small talk can effectively remind us that taking time to return periodically to the safe port of civility will help to restore our goodwill and also our hope of eventually returning to and resolving our differences.

Offers an Opportunity to Give

There are quite a few books, coaches and seminars these days enlisting small talk as a skill to be learned in order to turn every encounter into an opportunity to "Create An Indelible Impression!" "Network Like a Pro!" and "Nail That Interview!"

While small talk could be used to manipulate or achieve a projected gain, it also provides a golden opportunity to give, share, and join together with another human being. By taking a risk to start up a conversation with another, we are drawn out of our niche or cubicle or solitary habits. In so doing, we demonstrate our willingness to connect. In her book Words To Live By Mother Teresa of Calcutta calls out the tendency we have to isolate ourselves and to exclude others. She cautions, "We draw the circle of our family too small."

Small Talk Tips

If we find ourselves feeling intimidated and shying away from a chance to reach out to another in casual conversation, let's pause. We can then remind ourselves that feeling those queasy butterflies in the stomach isn't always an indictment of social awkwardness or a warning of inevitable rejection just ahead. Recall that, in the past, the same fluttering probably preceded that initial conversation with the stranger who eventually became your best friend or beloved significant other.

REACH out to another using these small talk tips:

  • Reveal something about yourself. To break the ice, summon the courage to smile and introduce yourself: "I work in the next department over and heard that this is your first week here. I've only been here a month myself. How's it going so far?"

  • Explore another's interests: "I noticed that your T-shirt is from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Have you been there?"
  • Ask open ended questions: "Did you hear about the couple who won the lottery? What would you do if you won?"
  • Consciously listen for facts and feelings that another may share with you: "You mentioned that you can't wait to get home. Have you been away for business or pleasure?"
  • Highlight similarities: "How old is your son? I have a little one at home about his age."
  • It turns out that small talk isn't so small after all. We can share and receive huge dividends of goodwill and connection by allowing small talk to prove to us its myriad benefits. It's encouraging and hopeful to realize that, at any given moment, we may be only a few sentences away from shortening our distance from another person.

    How do you feel about engaging in small talk? What benefits have you noticed?