Many people noticed that their social skills got a little rusty during the pandemic. My latest book discusses the psychology of mirrors and reflections. Research explains why being reflected by others is so vital to our well-being.
Being reflected occurs naturally during face-to-face conversations. We need these reflections from others to affirm our sense of self, help us regulate our emotions, and be in social coordination with others. But we typically don’t just stare at each other. Instead, we engage in some sort of conversation. We often start with some small talk. Small talk is considered polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, like the weather, food, travel, and hobbies.
Many people hate the idea of small talk. Even thinking about doing it can make you feel awkward and vulnerable. Yet it’s often the most common way to begin any interaction. Small talk is a social skill, like a social lubricant, to fill the void between uncomfortable silence and deeper conversation. Small talk is often necessary for developing deeper personal and business relationships.
3 Essential Functions of Small Talk
1. To elevate your mood and increase cooperation,
Although you may associate the idea of small talk with feelings of dread, research shows that it can generally elevate your mood. For instance, researchers used an experience sampling method to track daily small talk around the office. They found that engaging in small talk enhanced employees’ daily positive social emotions at work, which heightened their “organizational citizenship behaviors” and enhanced their well-being at the end of the workday. But small talk also disrupted employees’ cognitive ability to engage in their work. The researchers concluded that polite small talk could be uplifting — but also distracting (Methot et al., 2021).
2. To gather information
Think of the topics people spontaneously start chattering about as a projective test of their inner dialogue, their most important concerns, and how they see the world. Listening to the content of people’s spontaneous small talk can help you size them up, understand what’s most important to them, and gain insights into how they think. For instance, one lab study compared conditions in which players of a game engaged in small talk ahead with players who did not engage in small talk before the game. Through small talk, players could better predict their game partners’ personalities. And small talk allowed them to build a “theory of mind” or a mental framework to anticipate how their partner would play the game (Bose & Sgroi, 2022). Understanding how others think is an essential foundation for deeper conversations and as well as satisfying personal and professional relationships.
3. To bond and build trust with others
A willingness to engage in small talk signals that you are open and available to share a bit of yourself — without a script or agenda. This helps people form a sense of you. And familiarity builds trust. Sometimes you feel like you know someone after only exchanging a few words. This sense of familiarity is based on what psychologists call "interpersonal synchronization," which can be observed in speech rhythms, gesture patterns, and even breathing that comes into synchrony as we engage in face-to-face conversation. Research reveals a powerful phenomenon called “neural coupling,” where our brains get in sync during these conversations (Hasson et al., 2012). We can forge these mind-to-mind connections through creative, more meaningful small talk that leads to rewarding “big talk.”
Small Talk Tips
- Listen more than you talk. Shift your focus outward. When we focus on ourselves, we become more awkward and anxious. In fact, social anxiety is fueled by fear of negative evaluations from others, social criticism, and embarrassment.
- Develop a genuine interest in others. Prepare some questions ahead and be curious but avoid interrogating. Ask interested but not intrusive questions.
- Ask open-ended questions: What has been the highlight of your week so far? What is keeping you busy these days? (instead of what do you do?)
- Steer the conversation to topics that bond you with others’ personal and professional values, such as empathy, integrity, and honesty. Avoid oversharing personal information. Remember: Small talk is not therapy!
I also suggest practicing small talk in the mirror to build social confidence. Facing yourself before you engage with others can help you stay calm and confident as you increase your social presence and value as a conversation partner.
Copyright 2022 Tara Well, PhD
Bose N, Sgroi D (2022) The role of personality beliefs and “small talk” in strategic behaviour. PLoS ONE 17(9): e0269523. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0269523
Hasson U, et al. (2012). Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world. Trends Cognitive Science. 16(2):114-21. https://doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.12.007
Methot, J. R., et al (2021) Overlooked benefits of office chit-chat. Academy of Management.
Published Online: 27 Oct 2021. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2018.1474