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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Why is small talk hated? Can it make my communication more effective?

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

man listening to woman in small talk

Small talk – it gets a bad rap – it’s fashionable to dislike and make fun of. Does small talk deserve a negative image? Or does it have an important role in communication?

What is small talk? Why is it universally hated?

Small talk is light, informal conversation, generally between people who don’t know each other well. Small talk covers safe topics like the weather, hobbies or work, or the event at which it takes place. Small talk helps strangers get acquainted.

Small talk is hated for the most part because it takes place in uncomfortable situations. Networking events, meeting new people, or filling in awkward silences are examples of where small talk is used. These occasions are often disliked; therefore, small talk is disliked.

However, without small talk, navigating and succeeding in these situations would be nearly impossible.

Does small talk have a role in communication?

I contend yes. Small talk is important. Let’s look at four reasons why…

  • Small talk demonstrates interest. Encountering new environments and people can feel lonely. When another person engages us in conversation, asking thoughtful questions and listening well, we feel affirmed. A dreaded encounter becomes welcoming.

  • Small talk can identify common ground. Two strangers find out they have the same hometown or alma mater. They can exchange how they know the host of an event and share fun stories of times spent together. Common ground is a great starting point for creating new relationships.

  • Small talk can help strangers become friends. Meaningful connections develop from meaningful conversations and small talk is the starting point for meaningful conversations. Small talk done well provides the safety to discuss bigger ideas.

  • Small talk can lead to trust and the ability to have deeper discussions. If small talk is the endpoint, it will not have the impact on communication intended.

How can small talk be done well?

If you are anticipating being in a situation requiring small talk, how can you prepare and execute small talk that leads to effective communication? Here are four ways…

  • Enter the event with the goal to get to know others, rather than to be known. Seek out the lonely face in the crowd, not necessarily the person who is alone, but the one who is not being engaged by those around them. “Good evening, my name is ____. Did you travel far to get here?”

  • Ask open-ended questions that solicit safe, yet personal information that opens your conversation partner up to further discussion. “What have you enjoyed most so far about being at (the event)?” “Would you recommend that appetizer on your plate?”

  • Be an engaged listener and ask follow-up questions rather than reply with information about yourself right away. Let them ask you. “If I was to go to (where they are from), what should I be sure to do and see?” “What other events (or sessions) are you planning on attending (during the conference)?”

  • Be genuinely curious, interested, and enthusiastic. Everyone is interesting. You will be considered interesting the more you demonstrate an interest in others.

How not to do small talk…

  • Don’t work the room. There is no advantage in meeting everyone present. Set a reasonable goal of how many people to get to know and make your time with each one enjoyable.

  • Don’t get distracted. Put away your phone. If someone more “interesting” comes along, include your conversation partner and make introductions.

  • Don’t bring up controversial or offensive topics. If your conversation partner brings something up that makes you uncomfortable, listen politely and look for the quickest opportunity to steer them to a new topic.

  • Don’t abandon someone without a gracious exit. End each conversation on a positive note. Exchange business cards or ways you can stay in touch, or simply say you hope to run into each other again.

Communication doesn’t begin with deep discussions; it begins with creating connections. Small talk can help create connections. Do it well.

That’s all small talk is – a quick way to connect on a human level – which is why it is by no means as irrelevant as the people who are bad at it insist. In short, it’s worth making the effort. ~ Lynn Coady

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