Small talk is a vastly underrated occurrence.
Although dreaded by most people, it does, in fact, play a vital role in establishing relationships – whether that relationship happens to be in business, in a social context, or in a client/provider situation.
Can you imagine a world without small talk?
Think about it.
Small talk is our first attempt at getting to know someone. Not one relationship you have had, apart from that in a close family setting, has started with anything other than small talk. That seemingly insignificant ‘passing the time’ with someone gives us the first inkling of whether we have anything in common with another person.
Would you have gotten to know your husband or wife, fallen in love and married had you not both exchanged small talk at the beginning? If you can think back to the very first contact you had with someone who became a ‘significant other’ in your life, what do you remember? Did you immediately fall in love with them? Highly unlikely.
Did you bump into each other at the bar and know without any shadow of a doubt that you would be in a relationship with them, within the first minute of seeing them and without having exchanged a word? Of course, love at first sight does happen, but it’s rare, and most times we have to get to know somebody first before we can decide to take it further.
And the way we do that is through small talk. Just like listening skills, being good in small talk is an essential interpersonal skill for everyday life. Take, as another example, that most famous of small talk venues – the hair salon. They are, for the most part, notorious for it, and on the surface it’s as annoying as hell.
But – just imagine what it would be like without it. You would go in, take a seat, explain what you wanted, have your hair done, pay, and leave. Ok, so straight to the point and no messing. But wouldn’t you much rather share a much friendlier hour or so, with someone who greets you by name and with a smile?
Small talk is vital in keeping our social connections alive.
Isn’t it much nicer to pass that time talking about things which require no effort, with another human being who asks after your family, who remembers that your youngest has just started school? Someone who is interested in whether your holiday to the Caribbean was as good as the pictures you showed her in the brochure the last time you were there?
In these days of screens and virtual reality, human interaction is diminishing, which is why small talk is vital in keeping that connection alive. How dull and unfriendly your first day at a new job would be without small talk. Nobody to give you snippets of office politics. No-one to tell you where the tea and coffee is. Not a soul regaling you with stories of the difficult customers, or the grumpy manager.
It is small talk which makes the days go faster and feel more interesting. It is small talk which makes you feel noticed, and included, and part of the human race. Even a job interview will start with small talk, likewise a visit to the doctor, or the dentist, or the bank manager.
Small talk puts us at ease.
Some people can go days and weeks without talking to a soul. Just think about that for a moment, days and weeks without hearing another person’s voice apart from on the TV. Can you even begin to imagine how important small talk is to that person? Again it is that human contact, the interaction with another person.
Indulging in an insignificant exchange with a lonely person can make all the difference to how alone they feel. Five minutes swapping pleasantries will probably mean the world to an elderly man who finds himself alone after 50 years of marriage, or to an old lady whose family has emigrated and who she rarely hears from.
Giving them a few moments of your time, while tiresome to you, can be the light at the end of the long tunnel of solitude for someone who has nobody else. Sadly, right now, the world is troubled by prejudice – whether it is because of race, religion, colour or sexuality. Somebody who belongs to one of those ‘minority’ groups can feel unsafe, or unwelcome in their own town, or workplace, and that must be a terrible way to feel.
So can you imagine what a relief it would be to be on the receiving end of a smile, and a few words of insignificant conversation? Those passing comments cost you nothing, but could be enough to lift that person’s spirits, give them a feeling of belonging, and acceptance. How powerful is that, to make another person feel safe?
There’s a magic around the corner…
And small talk can give rise to the most serendipitous of happenings.
Let’s suppose you have just finished work for the day and you emerge from the building and it is raining. You stand for a moment under cover of the doorway while you look for your umbrella. A man standing next you remarks that it’s nice weather for ducks. You assume he is bemoaning the fact that it’s raining, whereas it’s your favourite kind of weather, and you tell him so. He smiles, and admits that it’s his favourite too, and you notice his smile.
Now maybe this conversation ends there. At the very least, your day has been brightened by a stranger’s beautiful smile.
Or, possibly, you stay a while, indulge in more trivia which ends in exchanging phone numbers, or going for a coffee around the corner…maybe you end up together, with this handsome man with the beautiful smile and a love of rain.
And that, right there, is the magic of small talk.
Featured photo credit: Dan Cooper via stokpic.com