Why Small Talk Isn’t Actually That Small

How good are you at making small talk? When you’re in the middle of a chance encounter with someone, does every possible thing to say go flying out of your head? Or do you believe that small talk is silly, and that each encounter you have with another person needs to involve “large” talk? According to a recent column by New York Times contributor Maeve Higgins, the small talk problem seems to be culturally specific to Americans. She herself is Irish, and she maintains that the pitter-patter of unimportant observations comes far easier to those from her native land than it does to Americans.

If you’re an American, these observations may strike you as completely contrary to your own experiences. You’ve had plenty of small talk in your life, from swapping stories while waiting in line at the drugstore to sitting next to a fellow traveler on a bus, train, or airplane. However, to Higgins, Americans are far more likely than those of other cultures to use interactions with strangers to share deeply personal details of their lives. Think back on the most recent trip you took where you were a solo traveler. What did you and your seatmate chat about (if anything)? Did you, or the other person, ask a question about each other’s occupations, hometown, or family members? How many steps did it take for you to go from a shared glance or smile to revelations about problems with children, a boss, or coworkers? Did it seem pointless for you to talk about the comforts or discomforts of travel, the weather, or something going on in the seats across from yours?

Higgins believes that Americans feel a strong need to dig down deep with strangers, and that anything less doesn’t seem worth discussing. According to her point of view, though, it’s the chit-chat that, “when done correctly, is actually an extremely efficient way of getting acquainted with people.” She goes on to note that you can answer such questions as whether they are “kind, hurting, silly or bad? Some combination of all of those?” The answer is there, believe it or not, “if you ask them about the party food, or tell them about your blouse, or bring up the oddly cloudless sky outside, and simply take it from there.”

This interesting thesis obviously was not put to scientific test in this very insightful essay, but there is research to back up the idea that small talk helps to grease important social wheels and help us learn about the people with whom we share even the most casual of experiences. According to Cardiff University (Wales) language and communications researcher Justine Coupland (2003), “Small talk has conventionally been taken, from both lay and academic perspectives, as a formulaic and superficial mode of talk” (p. 1). In a series of papers published in this issue of the journal, Coupland and the study authors show just how social small talk can be.

Earlier research, as Coupland notes, points to the many functions of small talk, but that one of its chief virtues is that it enhances social cohesiveness. When a customer and a server, for example, engage in small talk they keep the relationship on a friendly and even keel. Even people who know each other well and exchange pleasantries over the phone that don’t have deep interpersonal meaning provide an emotional connection. Unfortunately, because “full talk” seems to have so much more of an impact on social relationships, it’s given preference as a means of communication to its seemingly less significant counterpart. However, when you call someone just to keep in touch you allow the relationship to deepen in the sense of giving each person insight into the life of the other. You learn what your sister, mother, uncle, or friend from home are doing as they go about their day. A broken window, argument with the boss, or frustration over a noisy neighbor become grist for the relationship mill in their own special, if not mundane, way. In the words of Coupland, you need to “construct copresence by making contact across distances… by telephoning friends or relatives just to keep in touch” (p. 2).

The first step, then, to becoming better at small talk is to recognize its importance to your relationships. Don’t feel that you’re missing out on opportunities to get to know people better by digging down deep as soon as you can in a conversation. For people you already know, sometimes it’s better to keep it light, especially if your goal is to create that feeling of being together when you’re not physically near.

Second, recognize that if you think you’re not a good small talker, it’s possible to improve your skills. Coupland points out that small talk is a skill that you can learn. When you’re in the presence of a good small talker, you know that you feel more at ease, in part because there are no embarrassing silences. In the worst case scenario, you’ve been at a social function such as a neighborhood party, sitting with people you don’t actually know all that well, just staring down at your food. When a good small talker approaches you, even though the conversation may be about nothing other than crabgrass or the need for the sidewalk to be repaired, you feel relieved that you don’t have to sit in stony silence. Use this experience as an opportunity to observe what this pleasantly chatty person is doing and try it out on your own.

You’ve recognized that small talk is important, you’ve been exposed to a good small talker you can emulate, and now you’re ready for that third step. People who are good at mixing or just shooting the breeze are high in so-called “approach” motivation when it comes to relationships. They seek out rather than avoid human contact. While you’re at that neighborhood function, venture up to someone you don’t know that well and say hello. See what happens if you comment on how hot it is or how nice the decorations are. Offer a compliment on the person’s t-shirt or shoes. Keep it breezy and see what evolves. Don’t feel that the conversation is meaningless unless you embark into an in-depth discussion of the person’s family, views on religion, or early life experiences. Coupland points out that an important feature of communication is not the content of what is said, but the way in which it is spoken: “In small talk, relational issues are paramount” (p. 4).

The final, but least obvious, key to being good at small talk is being good at listening. Coupland notes that listening provides a cue to the other person that you actually do care about the relationship: “the pure enjoyment of communion” (p. 5). If you don’t listen, there’s no way you can bounce off of what the other person is saying and make comments that are appropriate to the level of your partner’s discourse, small or otherwise. If you listen carefully, you can sense whether there are any shifts to a deeper level.  You can also be better able to laugh at a funny comment or express concern about a situation that is troubling the other person.

To sum up, small talk is anything but. Take the light road to your next conversation, and the results may provide you with a surprising degree of fulfillment.

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