At first glance, small talk is sort of unquestionably terrible. Even if you can’t wait to meet new people, who wants to talk about the weather?
But linguists and social scientists say small talk is no small thing: It’s not what you’re saying that matters, but the social function it serves.
And it doesn’t just make parties way less awkward — it could actually make you happier. Dr. Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist at the University of Essex, noticed that “just saying hi to the lady at the hot dog stand” gave her a bounce in her step. She asked people to count their social interactions for six days and found that those who had more daily interaction with acquaintances were happier.
She followed up with a study at Starbucks, asking people to either talk to their baristas or get their coffee with maximum efficiency. Those who engaged in chit-chat were again happier. And people who broke the silence at the Tate Modern were in a better mood afterward and enjoyed the exhibit more. Even college students who talked to more classmates than usual felt happier at the end of the day.
“What I’m finding over and over is that talking to people makes us feel connected to others. This matters, because we are social creatures — psychologists think we have a need to belong, and suffer physically and mentally when we don’t feel as connected as we want,” Sandstrom says.
In another experiment, researchers at the University of Chicago asked commuters to either engage in small talk, “enjoy their solitude” or commute as usual. Those who talked to strangers were happiest, even if they had been dreading the task.
Of course, knowing it’s good for you doesn’t help you actually do it. With all those benefits, why do so many of us dread small talk?
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Dr. Carol Fleming, a communication coach with a background in speech pathology, finds an almost universal loathing for small talk among her clients — particularly the go-go executives she works with who don’t want to “waste time.” The problem, she thinks, is they don’t understand the purpose.
“The whole purpose of small talk as we know it is to send out the signal, ‘Will you be a friend to me?’ But we do it in disguise. We do it in code. We do it in a secret language, where we say ‘Lovely day today, isn’t it?’” Fleming explains. “They’re not really talking about the weather. They’re making friendly noises at each other to see if they can find something to talk about.”
Sandstrom felt so strongly about the need for small talk that she leads How to Talk to Strangers workshops and works with a nonprofit called Talk to Me, which organized a “Talk to Me Day” last July. In her workshops, people are most afraid of awkwardness or embarrassment. And her research indicates a deeper fear: that other people don’t find them interesting.
The true secret to small talk, Fleming says, is empathy: Just be more interested in the other person than you are in yourself. Fleming is working on a book on the subject, “The Curious Business of Small Talk.”
For the “absolutely paralyzed person,” she developed a three-point "ARE" — Anchor, Reveal, Encourage —plan, with two bonus points once you've mastered the technique.
Ask a question and throw the ball over to the other person. “Do you know anything about this carpet design?” Don’t worry about being clever or witty. This is about being friendly, not entertaining the person.
Don’t stop a conversation with one-word answers. If someone says it’s a beautiful day, say something like “It sure is. I wish my dog were here. He’s still in New York, but I’d love for him to run down the beach on a day like this.”
Generalities can kill a conversation. In the example above, your conversation partner now has options: Should we talk about New York, your dog, the beach? Fleming calls one-word answers “orphans.” Give more information instead, and you can keep the conversation rolling as long as you like.
“These people have no idea that they are the ones killing the conversation with these monosyllabic answers,” she says. “Once they know what to do, they’re liberated. I’ve given them the key to open the door.”