Endless chitchat about mindless subjects can drive anybody crazy. When people carry on without allowing others to engage in the conversation, they are missing the point of small talk. Appropriate small talk should feel like a dance not like an assault.
Communication is not simply about passing on information. One of the primary goals of communicating with people is to make a connection with them.
Small talk is all about connection. The style of talk is playful, casual, and humorous, without being critical, overbearing, or a chatterbox. Appropriate small talk is vital in developing and sustaining relationships.
There are several reasons for connecting through small talk.
1. Emotional Closeness
The energy in a person’s body language, not the information behind the words, communicates warmth. You can even engage in small talk with someone who speaks a different language and convey friendliness and humor.
2. Effective Dialogue
When there is disagreement, small talk can help you develop connection by showing your common humanity, which allows for a more effective dialogue. Without establishing connection, disagreements become accusatory or controlling attacks and will cause defensiveness, anger, or hurt feelings.
3. Ritual Small Talk
Small talk shows our competence in normal communication. It reveals our ability to read other people. When people see that we know when to start talking, when to stop, and that we know what topics are appropriate given the circumstances, they see we have a basic understanding of how to relate to people.
Imagine that someone says, “What beautiful weather we’re having,” and the second person responds with a simple, “no” or “I guess” with no warmth or further comment showing confirmation of the first speaker’s attempt to make a connection. It leaves the first speaker wondering, “What’s wrong with him/her? How rude!” or “OK, I made the effort! But I won’t try anymore.”
When people start an intense debate when others are simply shooting the breeze, it signals that they are oblivious to what’s going on around them.
When people cannot adhere to the unspoken rules of appropriate small talk, others get frustrated and suspicious. Those who can’t or won’t engage in small talk in appropriate situations or who don’t allow others to talk are often rejected and avoided.
People who recognize when small talk is appropriate adapt easily to relationship expectations. Moreover, those who understand the bounds of appropriate communication are generally seen to be likable and trustworthy.
4. New Relationships
Small talk is like a dance in getting to know someone. Through talking casually while avoiding any commitment, you get a feel for what the other person is like—whether you click, whether there’s some commonality or a spark between you.
The subject of conversation matters less than the feeling behind the words. If there seems to be mutual understanding, you can gradually deepen the conversation by disclosing more personal values and thoughts. If you don’t sense reciprocity, no harm is done.
While we don’t have to spend a great deal of time engaging in small talk, we can use it to create better connection with other people. As long as we sense when other people have had enough, then small talk can be meaningful.
Whether a conversation with someone lasts a fleeting moment at the supermarket or develops into a lasting relationship, the purpose of small talk is to express the desire for a positive emotional connection between two human beings. While small talk seems to be about nothing at all, it’s really about being human, understanding subtle communication, and responding to people with a sense of connection.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD