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.