How to ace the art of small talk — and enjoy it so much more
Tips for leveling up at this important social function
"It's meaningless" and "it's phony" are the two main reasons most of the people I surveyed on social media gave for despising small talk. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, the first academic theorist of small talk ("phatic communion" in his lingo), said it consisted of "purposeless expressions of preference or aversions, accounts of irrelevant happenings, comments on what is perfectly obvious." Though he was writing in 1923, his point endures. We commiserate about the weather, chat sports or ask complete strangers, without without hope or expectation of an honest answer, how they are doing. We flap our mouths to ward off the chill of silence without saying or learning anything. Why bother?
Just because we aren't saying anything meaningful, doesn't mean we aren't doing anything meaningful. As proponents of small talk are quick to point out, casual chit-chat performs important social functions. It establishes the familiarity and comfort that pave the way to more in-depth interactions. Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, calls small talk "the appetizer for any relationship. You don't know where your next opportunity will be in life, in friendship, in romance, in meeting people. In most cases, the relationship started with small talk. Somebody had to say hello first. Most of us are afraid to say hello!" Meaningless talk isn't pointless talk. It's the conversational foreplay necessary to further social intercourse.
But focusing too much on what you might get out of it highlights the second problem people have with small talk: it's inauthentic. In professional situations especially, small talk's reputation is darkened by its association with another suspiciously instrumental practice: "networking". If what we're really after is something that happens downstream from small-talk — business deals, romantic connections, information — then isn't all this chit-chat just manipulation? Why not just get to the point?
A lot of the time, small talk isn't just an empty preamble to the real point, it is the point. Most people like chatting with others, and that's reason enough to do it. Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder are behavioural scientists at the University of Chicago, and authors of a paper titled "Mistakenly Seeking Solitude". They conducted a series of nine experiments exploring whether connecting with a stranger improved or worsened subjects' experience of their daily commute. They found that not only do most people like small talk, they like it more than they think they do. Even subjects who expected to have a worse time when speaking to strangers actually reported having a better time. In one experiment they also showed that, on the whole, people enjoy being talked to rather than having their privacy fastidiously respected. Yet despite the overall benefits to small talk, most people avoid it. Epley and Schroeder believe that this is both because they underestimate how much they'll enjoy it and because they overestimate how much other people want to be left alone. These mistaken beliefs lead people to seek solitude, even though it makes everyone less happy.
So there are lots of good reasons to engage in small talk: it can lead to further beneficial social relationships, and both you and the people you talk to are likely to enjoy it more than minding your own business. However, Epley and Schroeder have only shown that people enjoy small talk on average. Chances are likely that some people are going to be awful to talk to and others are going to be annoyed you tried to connect with them. With that in mind, here are a few tips to improve your percentages.
Choose the right topic
Traditionally, small talk should take place on safe common ground: the weather, sports, popular culture. The object is to get the conversational ball rolling without bumping it into anything too controversial or too personal. This is the purest form of small talk because it allows people to bond socially, unhindered by meaning or content.
Some, however, find it to be a vapid and frustrating exercise. They can't motivate themselves to make the effort of talking without something more abstract or meaningful at stake than whether it might rain later. Such people can only make small talk about big ideas and you'll have to offer them something meatier to talk about.
In order to figure out what type of small talker you're dealing with, you can start with any topic, from totally safe to moderately controversial. The key is to be sensitive to their reactions and to redirect the conversation in the directions you both find most comfortable or interesting.
Ask questions and listen to the answers
Terrible conversationalists see conversation as an opportunity to show off, to impress with knowledge and charm with wit. They bloviate, they pontificate and, inevitably, they irritate. According to good manners and social science, you're better off asking lots of questions and listening to the answers. Not only does asking lots of questions increase your chances of learning something interesting, it will also make your conversation partners like you more. Researchers at Harvard Business School found that experimental subjects rate people who asked more questions, particularly questions that follow up on earlier parts of the conversation, as more likeable than those who asked fewer.
Starting a conversation and keeping it going are good things. However, many naturally chatty people have the habit of jumping in to fill every silence. This is understandable because silence can feel uncomfortable, especially if we take it as a sign that the other person is bored or annoyed. However, people are also quiet when they're thinking. And a pause for reflection nearly always comes right before the shift from the automatic chatter of small talk to a more fully engaged conversation. So make sure to allow others enough space to consider your questions and their answers. Silence is often an indication that they've become interested in what you're actually saying. When you interrupt that silence, you might be guiding the conversation back into the shallows. Similarly, if you hear something that gives you pause, don't hesitate to mull it over for a few moments before answering.
Celeste Headlee is a professional radio host who has interviewed hundreds of people on air. In a Ted Talk, she gives 10 tips for making great conversation, but thinks that they all boil down to this single dictum: "Be interested in other people." Nearly every adult in the world has something you can learn from them. The key to great conversation is finding something about the other person you're interested in and drawing it out. Your interest will come across and make them more interested in turn. When you do find some mutually interesting material, it's very likely to naturally lead you out of small talk, and that's no bad thing either.
Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.