Chris: Hey. How was your weekend?
Linda: It was good. Yours?
Chris: Nice. Mine too.
Linda: I’m glad. See you later.
Ah, the typical small talk—a type of conversation in which very few delight, but which must be tolerated nonetheless. Why not excel?
What is small talk?
Small talk is informal discourse that remains at a superficial level in content. More ritual-like in nature, it is a strategy for exchanging pleasantries and maintaining interpersonal distance. Small talk can serve as a conversational opener to establish friendly intentions before sliding into more functional discussion, and it can also be used to end a conversation to soften the parting. Most times, however, small talk is used as a silence filler, as the social wiring in us makes silence amidst others uncomfortable and even unbearable.
The advantages of small talk
Apart from being a standard way of getting a conversation, small talk allows gauging of how someone is like, in addition to what they are saying. Since research shows that only 7% of a message’s impact comes from the words spoken—leaving the 93% to our vocal and body gestures— small talk allows communication partners a clearer understanding of the other’s personality based on how they deliver themselves. It is through such gentle probing and discovering that strangers transition into acquaintanceship, and further decide to take the relationship into a more intentional and intimate place.
Another benefit of small talk lies in its structure. The small talk script puts the brain on autopilot, providing something familiar amidst unfamiliar people and spaces. Rather than having to scour for conversation topics, new speakers can rely on this template to help initiate their interaction.
Additionally, small talk helps to maintain an exchange to ‘water’ the relationship with the other, especially when there’s little time. Two colleagues in a company may not afford the leisure to sit down for a chat, but they could easily acknowledge each other in the hallway through small talk. When the opportunity arises for the two to converse for longer, such as at year-end socials, they could begin the interaction as friendly colleagues rather than awkward strangers.
How to become better at small talk?
One of many ways to master the art of small talk is to state an observation about a shared experience, may it be about the weather, occasion, or food. In doing so, the speaker directly and indirectly invites the listener to a conversation. The direct invitation addresses the person specifically, while the indirect form reveals characteristics of spoken thought. When used effectively, both can do wonders in sparking a conversation.
Direct: Hey Greg— your carrot cake last night was delicious! Thanks for baking them for the social.
Indirect: The fridge in the shared kitchen is finally fixed. I can’t remember the last time I had a cold salad.
Another approach at small talk is to ask for stories, rather than answers. In other words, the speaker will see great benefit in asking open-ended questions that require detailed explanations, as opposed to one-word responses. Consider these transformations:
How was your weekend? → Did you do anything exciting over the weekend?
What do you do? → What’s your story?
How are you? → What are you thinking about right now?
A final method discussed in this post, but only one of numerous others, is to step into every interaction with this mission: discover what makes the other unique. The most natural and engaging of conversations occur when two people are genuinely interested in one another—questions follow answers which then follow questions, and so on. Such charming correspondences are fuelled by curiosity, which leaves two uninterested strangers facing a catch-22: one does not initiate with another one finds uninteresting, but one also does not find the other interesting until one has initiated. The way to break this cycle is with the intention to learn something new about the other. Those who seek, find.
Overall, small talk is an inevitable component of human interaction. As there are significantly more unfamiliar than familiar people one will encounter in life, small talk skills are indispensable in the successful navigation of social and professional communication.
Colin, C., & Baedecker, R. (2014). What to talk about: On a plane, at a cocktail party, in a tiny elevator with your bosss boss. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
If you are looking for guidance in sharpening such tools, speech-language pathologists are here to help. Just like speech clarity and assertiveness, small talk skills can most definitely be refined. To speak with one of the speech-language pathologists at Well Said: Toronto Speech Therapy, schedule an initial consultation by clicking the link below or calling (647) 795-5277.