We’ve all been there: in an elevator, a waiting room, in line at the bank or on an airplane, surrounded by people who are, like us, deeply focused on their smartphones or, worse, struggling with the uncomfortable silence.
What’s the problem? It’s possible that we all have compromised conversational intelligence. It’s more likely that none of us initiate a conversation because it’s awkward and challenging, or we think it’s annoying and unnecessary. But the next time you find yourself among strangers, consider that small talk is worth the trouble. The experts say it’s an invaluable social ritual that results in big benefits, both personal and professional.
It’s a start
Dismissing small talk as trivial is easy, but we can’t forget that deep relationships wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for casual conversation. Small talk is the grease for social interaction, says Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. “Every great romance and each big business deal begins with small talk,” he explains. “The key to successful small talk is learning how to connect with others, not just communicate with them.” According to Carducci, exploring common ground in conversation-even about something as trivial as the weather or the long lineup-works toward forging bonds between humans.
Happy is as happy does
“Big talk,” substantial conversation with greater impact on our lives, is obviously essential to our happiness. But it’s important not to overlook the value of small talk, either.
In a 2014 study, Elizabeth Dunn, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, recruited people on their way into a coffee shop. One group was asked to seek out an interaction with its barista; the other, to be as efficient in its exchanges as possible. The results showed that those who chatted briefly with their server reported significantly higher positive emotions, not to mention a considerably better coffee shop experience. “It’s not that talking to the barista is better than talking to your husband,” says Dunn. “But interactions with more peripheral members of our social network actually matter for our well-being also.”
Dunn’s findings arguably complement research released in 2013 by Andrew Steptoe of University College London. Steptoe reported that socially isolated seniors died at a higher rate than those with regular social interactions, whether through church, social clubs or contact with friends and relatives.
Making the connection
Dunn believes that people who reach out to strangers feel a significantly greater sense of belonging, a bond with others. Carducci believes nurturing this sense of community starts with small talk. “Small talk is the cornerstone of civility,” he says. “When you connect with people through conversation, you’re much less likely to mistreat them or be mistreated by them.”
A boon for business
When it comes to the working world, casual conversation is essential, too. “One of the biggest predictors of career success is verbal fluency,” says Carducci. Small talk should be viewed as the warm-up that conveys key information about you, like goodwill, trustworthiness and a willingness to co-operate.
These are the things that help seal the deal, according to Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, a can’t-miss for business people. “You can negotiate a contract, make a presentation, sell a widget or promote your services, but unless you integrate small talk, you will not develop a business friendship,” she explains. “All things being equal, people do business with their friends.”