Is Small Talk Pointless?

A two-minute elevator ride with a colleague was my definition of absolute torture. I often found myself rigidly standing in a corner and desperately scrolling down my social media feed to find something, anything remotely entertaining to distract me from the thick cloud of awkwardness taking shape before my very socially inept eyes.

Small talk was my kryptonite. If you wanted to see me in a state of quiet frenzy, all you had to do was talk to me about some boring pile of baloney that I, according to social graces, had to entertain. What was I to say every time someone commented about the weather? How could I launch a full-fledged and sensible conversation from something that trite?

I was always amused to hear people ramble on about a subpar fast-food meal they had or the fucked-up transportation system in the Philippines. It boggled my mind how they never seemed to realize that nobody cares about their bland stories. However, what blew my mind even more was the fact that most people, even those whom I thought were above small talk, engaged in such nonsense.

There, I said it. I used to haaaaate small talk. Used to. What changed my mind?

Unsplash - Les Anderson
Photo by Les Anderson from Unsplash

It all started almost a year ago when I was at this company outing, talking with one of my colleagues. We were throwing words back and forth when he suddenly said he found it weird we had been seatmates for months yet he barely knew anything about me. Holy cripes, seriously? I didn’t tell him this but I thought his declaration was unfair. First of all, he knew I was a wrestling fan, he knew where I lived, he knew my name, he knew uhm, uh…. Well, I guess that was all he knew.

Since he was an expert at it (no sarcasm intended), he gave me a crash course on how to make small talk, and to be honest, I felt silly doing that exercise. When he asked me to try striking up a conversation, I remember talking about the color and shape of the leaves above us. Like, WTF? Was that the most creative I could get? Ultimately, I steered the discussion into less shallow subjects — because that’s what introverts like me talk about best.

That talk really gave me pause. In the succeeding months, I tried to watch my reactions to every small-talk scenario I found myself in. Since the cringing and wincing never fully went away, I decided to try and see if I can nip the problem right in the bud and start over. To do that, I had to look deep within myself and figure out why I hated it in the first place. Here’s what I found:

First realization: Small talk is fake. It is something you have to do only for pleasantries.

Second realization: Because it is fake, small talk is nothing but a waste of time.

Like every other gal, I hated phony stuff and time-wasters, so there’s no wonder I hated small talk. Still, I had the feeling I was missing something, so I went to see Google to hear out her thoughts on the matter. She just sized me up, gave a slight nod, and then spewed out some new information that both supported my argument and rejected it at the same time — you know, the way Google always does, that paradoxical piece of marvel.

Unsplash - Toa Heftiba
Photo by Toa Heftiba from Unsplash

Small Talk Is More Than Just a Social Lubricant

In his 1923 essay, The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages, Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski declared that the kind of talk used in “pure sociabilities” (e.g. small talk) “serves to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship and does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas.”

Interesting thought, isn’t it? It makes sense, too, since when you talk to someone about something as trivial as the weather, you’re essentially breaking the ice and easing the tension between you. You’re paving the way for a connection to materialize. Malinowski was right — small talk truly is a social lubricant, but it’s also more than that.

As Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, said, small talk is more than just a small pleasantry; rather, it’s the “cornerstone of civility.” Small talk allows you to make connections, however small or seemingly unimportant, and “if you make connections with people, it makes it much more difficult for you to treat them in an uncivil way. If you think about being kind to and connecting with people, people you engage in conversation, you’re going to open a door for them, you’ll let them step in front of you in line. You’ll engage in more acts of kindness and fewer acts of rudeness.” In other words, making small talk can generally make you nicer.

Let me quote another one from Carducci: “Small talk is important, particularly now when we have people retreating into their own electronic bubbles, their own worlds, where they can get whatever they want on their own terms. The people who are happiest and most influential have the strongest social network, social capital.” Amen, Carducci. Is it just me or is Carducci beginning to sound like a plump, juicy fruit you eat in Monaco? Anyway, there’s more weight to Carducci’s words than we think because science backs up every one of his claims.

Unsplash - Andrea Tummons
Photo by Andrea Tummons from Unsplash

Science Says We Should Give Small Talk a Chance

Psychologist Gladeana McMahon said that chatting “helps us deal with isolation and relieve stress. The little chats about nothing in particular can make a real difference.” Who would’ve thought that shallow and pointless conversations can actually have some use? Not me, for sure, although now that I’ve accepted small talk as an art, I often leave conversations with a light feeling in my chest.

Dr. Samantha Boardman, a Manhattan-based psychiatrist, also supported McMahon’s proclamation, although she was more interested in the meaningful conversations that followed small talk. She said, “Making a point to talk about stuff that matters is a simple way to cultivate happiness.” Apparently, everyone can take something positive from every conversation. To some, it’s a stress reliever; to others, it’s a ticket to happiness, as cheesy as that sounds.

So, if everyone loves small talk so much, why aren’t there more strangers talking in cafes or bus stops or elevators? What’s keeping us from chatting away?

As it turns out, we sometimes get too caught up in our own doubts and reservations that we forget we’re not the only ones going through a social meltdown. There are other people like us out there who either don’t know how to start a conversation or who just don’t want to be the ones to break the ice for fear of imposing on others. This can be blamed on a concept called pluralistic ignorance, in which a group of people assume they’re alone in thinking of or wanting something, when the truth is that everyone else thinks of or wants that same thing. Apparently, many of us relish the idea of talking to someone when we’re feeling bored or alone, but we refuse to say the first word for fear of intruding on people’s comfort zones and popping their personal bubbles. Many potential connections are lost because of wrong assumptions.

Another scientific reason to engage in small talk is that it’s good for the brain. A 2010 study published by SAGE found that a social interaction or functioning, “if it involves mind reading and engaging with the other person, can also provide subsequent performance boosts on [executive functions].” Talking is a cognitive exercise because it entails reading other people’s thoughts and interpreting their feelings. As such, it “can enhance core mental capacities,” as the study found.

Making small talk doesn’t only make you friendlier; it also makes you happier and smarter. If I had known that sooner, maybe I would’ve tried to be less socially awkward. But, then again, maybe not. As they say, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks because Rome wasn’t built in a day, or something like that.

So, what do you say? Shall we give small talk a chance? Tune in next week to see how I wrap this burrito up. Let’s take a crash course together and see if we can nail this thing. Fingers crossed.

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