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How to Start Conversations and Connect with Others

The Big Thing About Small Talk


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		  The Big Thing About Small Talk   

The primary function of small talk is to build and maintain social relationships. Period.  Those who despise small talk entirely miss the point of it.  It is a useful and necessary ritual, one that the anthropologist  Malinowski termed phatic communion, defined as “language  used in free, aimless, social intercourse.”   

The American Heritage Dictionary (2000) defines phatic as  “Of, relating to, or being speech used to share feelings or to  establish a mood of sociability rather than to communicate  information or ideas.” That's small talk in a nutshell.   

It's Not About Big Ideas   

Sometimes the talk exchanged is highly predictable and  brief. It's about the weather, or the last weekend, or one's  state of health. Here, it's the connection that counts, taking  time to acknowledge the presence of an acquaintance, or even  the nod of recognition and “Good day” offered to a passing  stranger.   

Other times the small talk can be lengthy and detailed.  It may be shop talk or family talk or gossip. In his book  Games People Play, psychiatrist Eric Berne termed such  talk “pastimes” and labeled some of them like “General  Motors” (men talking about cars) and “Wardrobe”  (women talking about fashion.) and “PTA” (talking  about kids and school.)   

It's About People   

Ask people who attend conferences and trade shows  about the best aspects of the event. Usually it will be the  people they meet, the networking, rather than the main  sessions. New contacts become part of your social  capital, your “know-who” resources.   

In the office workplace, some of the most satisfying  parts of the day are water-cooler talk, or a shared coffee break.  We humans are tribal, and we need face-time contact with  all its attendant sights and smells and movements and feelings.   

Small talk glues communities together. It provides the  little details of life that allow us to know one another well  enough to bond, to trust, to collaborate. We remark to a  colleague that she looks tired, and we learn that she was up  late taking care of her ailing parent. We notice that  Joe is remarkably upbeat on Monday morning and find out  that his son kicked the winning goal in Saturday's game.   

We Need High Touch   

When futurist John Naisbit first used the phrase  “high tech-high touch” in MegaTrends (1982), he was  referring to the need for balance in an increasingly  high tech world. Thus most people still prefer to view  movies in theaters with hundreds of others, to stand in  line and smell the popcorn and schmooze with friends  rather than to look at a 100-inch screen and watch a DVD  at home alone. We need “high touch.” We need small talk.   

Why Tele-Commuting is Difficult   

One serious downside of tele-commuting is the lack  of small talk that emails and instant messaging cannot  duplicate. The worker at home is out of the social  loop and can't stay current with the state of office politics,  gossip, rumors, and vibes. When we're out of sight,  we're also out of mind. A person cannot accurately  gauge where she stands in the workplace without regular  face-to-face contact.   

A Skill of Emotional Intelligence   

Being able to make small talk with a variety of people  is a foundational skill of emotional intelligence. To  dismiss small talk as an empty social ritual is foolish and  shows little understanding of what is needed for humans  to connect and bond. Those bosses who limit coffee breaks  and scorn water-cooler chats while telling employees to  “stop talking and get back to work” often injure the social  climate for work and actually reduce productivity. 


Loren Ekroth ©2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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