It’s all too easy to dismiss small talk as being inconsequential when in fact it’s an essential part of day-to-day communication which can add real value to our relationships. Even now, small talk can be helpful as a way to share our experiences and connect virtually when we can’t in person.
Small talk helps us to test the mood of the social environment we find ourselves in. Recently, this has been by phone, via text or email, Skype or FaceTime, and the conversation has been driven often by concern and the restricted detail of our days. But normally, from first dates, to business events, to meeting up with a friend after a long day’s work, small talk is a way to assess the mood, gauge how others are and, importantly, how they’re going to react to us. And, given that such a large part of communication is non-verbal, we are picking up on non-verbal clues at this point of first contact.
So why is small talk so important? We might think it’s just polite chit-chat but, in reality, small talk is part of how we unconsciously suss out the situation we find ourselves in. Small talk can also help our confidence when we need it most. It’s hard for most of us to move through unknown social waters with ease and making small talk can really help us. Working on the premise that small talk is, by its nature, based on inconsequential things – like the weather! – we can start from there. Even offering our name creates an opening exchange that will inevitably lead to a response.
What next? Using some context related to why you’re both there can help. ‘Did you have to travel far?’ ‘How do you know the host?’ If the occasion is work related, I may ask: ‘Are you a journalist/writer, too?’ If it’s more social I might remark on an item of clothing or jewellery. Listening, showing interest and asking questions are skills we can practise, remembering that the other person might be feeling unconfident, too. Standing tongue-tied at a party as a teenager, watching with envy as others seem to effortlessly chat and laugh, small talk seemed impossible. I remember it so well, being mortified by my social awkwardness, and recognise it to this day when I see it in others.
I had been a shy child, encouraged into drama lessons at school, which gave me a way of ‘pretending’ – but it wasn’t foolproof. When I left school to train as a nurse, I had to learn to initiate communication fast, but within a specific context and one where I also had a role and a purpose, which helped. In any initial exchange with a patient, I had to put them at ease, help them manage their anxiety and adjust to a hospital environment. This is as true of the value of small talk today as then. So, if we dismiss small talk, we might be missing a trick.
Mentioning the weather might be an English cliché, but just saying ‘Dreadful rain,’ or ‘Lovely morning,’ can elicit a response and, whatever that is, we have gleaned information upon which we can build the next conversational step. These simple social niceties have real value in helping us foster our relationships, as useful with those we know well as with those we’ve just met. Some of our most challenging communication can be with those closest to us, and here small talk can have value too. When my sons moved from easy childhood chat to monosyllabic teenagers, I found myself learning about football, or watching a movie with them, just to make small talk that might engage them and keep the lines of communication open long enough to broach other, more complex subjects.
While we might relish those intense, late night or intimate conversations we enjoy with those close to us, many of these become possible because of a little verbal foreplay to ease us into conversation. Whether passing the time of day, checking in to see how someone is, or creating opportunities for engagement, the value of small talk shouldn’t be dismissed, particularly at a time when we are currently having to stay connected in a virtual world.
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This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine issue 38. Read In The Moment Magazine back issues on Readly.
Illustration by Carmela Caldart.