Some Thoughts On The Point Of Small Talk

A lot of people aren't keen about making small talk, and not only less-social types. Plenty of socially average or above-average people aren't that fond of it either. They can even resent it a bit, because they don't want to do it, but feel forced to, because they know they may be seen as odd or prickly if they don't take part.

Small talk a bad rap in a lot of conversation advice as well. People are encouraged to avoid it as much as possible and get to more meaty, interesting topics. It's one of those things that will never totally go away though, and weirdly, if you come to peace with just that fact and play along, it can all become easier.

When people use the term "small talk" they can mean a few things by it. The most neutral definition is that small talk is light, casual conversation. Often though the phrase is used to refer to:

Some justifications for small talk

Routine questions are a standard way to get a conversation going

You've just started speaking to someone at a party, or you've bumped into your co-worker in the staff kitchen. You know you want to talk to each other, but a good topic isn't jumping immediately to mind. Asking some standard questions gets the ball rolling. It's a flexible, easy to use conversation template. When you're applying a broader conversational approach, asking small talk-type questions may be required to get it off the ground.

There's a set of "getting to know you" questions and a set of "How are you? What have you been up to?" ones. They're just a way to hopefully springboard into more interesting territory. In an ideal world we'd always have fascinating things to discuss with each other right off the bat, but we sometimes don't, so we have to fall back on uninspired questions to get things going.

Small talk lets you gauge what someone is like as a person, aside from what they're saying

Imagine you're at a party and you have quick, more-or-less identical conversations about the weather with two other guests. The first seems cheerful and positive. They have relaxed, approachable body language. They look you in the eye and seem to be listening to what you're saying. You sense they want to talk to you.

The second person seems bored and full of themselves. Their body language is cold and standoffish. When you're speaking they're mostly looking over your shoulder, scanning for someone else to talk to. When they are listening, they look unimpressed with what you're saying.

Even though you'll be glad to move beyond the weather talk, you'd probably like to keep speaking to Person #1. You'd want to get away from Person #2 as soon as you've made the bare minimum amount of chit chat required before you can excuse yourself without seeming rude. When two people are making early small talk it gives each of them a few minutes to size each other up, from a safe, impersonal distance, without the content of the conversation needing to factor into the decision.

Standard chit chat can ease your nerves

When you first start speaking with someone you can feel a little flustered, on the spot, or anxious. Usually this is when you meet new people, but it may even happen if someone you know catches you by surprise and your mind isn't in conversation mode. Asking questions and making statements you've said a hundred times before puts your brain on autopilot so you don't have to grasp for things to say. I find that when people are mildly anxious like this it only takes a minute or so for them to collect themselves, calm down, and become comfortable in the interaction. Routine conversation buys them that time.

Routine questions are a good way to restart a stalled conversation

If you're in the middle of talking to someone and the discussion hits a lull, you can always fall back on one of the usual questions. You won't win any points for originality, but hopefully it will re-ignite the interaction. Again, you may not feel like the world's most sparkling conversationalist when you hit an awkward pause and have to resort to, "Um... ...seen any good movies lately?", but it's better than nothing.

Small talk allows you to hold a conversation with people you have to socialize with, but don't have a lot to say to

Life sometimes puts us around people we wouldn't go out of our way to talk to if we had a choice in the matter. It's not that we hate them, just that we don't share much common ground. However, sometimes our circumstances require us socialize with them, since it would seem rude otherwise. Small talk allows us to put in the expected few minutes of conversation when we run into a co-worker in the break room, or when we're at a family reunion and our second cousin comes over to say hello.

Small talk is socializing for its own sake

Sometimes people just want to be social and talk to another person, even if they don't have any thought provoking topics to bring up. Like they may not have any substantial news to share with their co-worker, but still want to maintain their social connection. So they'll just make mindless, affable chit chat. What's important is that they're socializing and taking an interest in them. Saying something dull with good intentions is preferable to saying nothing.

Some people have a different viewpoint, along the lines of, "If you don't have anything to say to someone, why talk to them?", and get a bit taken aback when it seems others want to gab with them for "no reason". They see purely social chit chat as pointless. More broadly, some people just aren't that social in general, and so don't get anything from casually speaking to someone for its own sake.

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Small talk is a way to have an exchange when you don't have a lot of time

Like the point above mentioned, small talk is a good way to show your social interest in people and "water" your relationship with them. This is particularly true if you don't get a chance to see them for longer lengths of time. Like you may have an acquaintance who lives in your university dorm, who you only run into every now and then while you're checking your mail. When you talk to them you only have a few minutes to cover some standard small talk stuff. That's a lot better than ignoring each other.

Regular small talk can keep friendship prospects primed for a more substantial connection down the road

Say you're planning an outing and you want to invite an acquaintance from your softball team. If you've regularly been making light chit chat with them, then it wouldn't seem strange to ask them to hang out. However, say you didn't say a word between the time you met them a year and a half ago and the day you wanted to invite them out. That would seem a lot more out of the blue.

Sometimes people just want to talk about light topics

If your complaint about small talk is that the topics are shallow, realize that not every conversation is going to be really weighty or fulfilling. Sometimes people are in the mood to just idly chat about something trivial for a couple of minutes. Also, some topics have hidden depth, but appear light and fluffy to anyone who isn't interested in them.

Many people expect to start with some small talk when they meet someone new, and by engaging in it you show you're someone who's socially on the ball and aware of these unwritten expectations

I know this type of reasoning is circular - people have to make small talk, because people make small talk - but it is what it is. People feel reassured knowing they're talking to someone who's tuned into the unwritten social rules. If they meet someone, and right off the bat that person breaks the "make at least a bit of small talk" guideline, they often can't help but subconsciously think, "If they don't know something as basic as that, how else might they be socially inappropriate?" For example, maybe you can remember a time when a total stranger started immediately telling you about some ultra-heavy topic, like how they were abused as a child. It made you put your guard up, right?

I'm not saying you have to engage in five minutes of meaningless blather with everyone, or they'll think you're a headcase. With the right people you often can get into more entertaining or substantial topics before long. It's more that if someone seems to want to ask a few typical getting-to-know-you questions, and you're trying to rush them into talking about their deepest fears and regrets, you can seem socially clumsy.

People aren't trying to bug you on purpose if their small talk annoys you

Making small talk can be dreary. It can get old when you've explained what you did on the weekend to the fifth straight classmate. Sometimes you can get irritated and feel like they're purposely trying to bother you. Of course, people usually have good intentions. There's not a conspiracy between everyone to ask you the same tiresome questions over and over again. They're just being friendly and probably actually do want to know how your holidays went or whatnot.

If you don't feel like making small talk, do your part to move past it

If you find yourself making tedious small talk with someone, make sure you aren't keeping it going by giving one-word answers or returning the same question you didn't like answering yourself a second ago. One thing to do is give detailed responses to any questions you're asked, to provide the other person with more "hooks" they can potentially take to move onto more interesting subjects. Pay attention to what they say too, so you can hopefully pick up on a tangent to take the discussion down yourself.

Often we're not so much opposed to small talk as the circumstances we're doing it under

If you're talking to someone you like you'll usually be happy to tell them how your day was or what you got up to on Friday night. If you've met someone new who you're interested in, you really do want to know where they went to school, and you'll cheerfully answer the same question yourself. But if you're conversing with someone you don't want to talk to, and who you don't click with that well, then the same exchange feels irritating and perfunctory. Even if you do hit on a commonality, you may not really care. Similarly, if someone's in a social, outgoing mood they may want nothing more than to make small talk with a bunch of strangers. Take that same person, and put them at work at 9:30am on a Tuesday, and they may not be in the frame of mind where they want to speak to anyone at all. It's all about the context.

One reason some people may dislike most small talk is they're sort of negative about others in general. When they're in a situation where they have to make light chit chat, their mind is likely to be in that, "I don't care what this person has to say" mode.