Most people don’t really enjoy small talk, because it’s tedious, feels draining and can give you a case of acute onset imposter syndrome. That may just be because we don’t realise small talk’s true function: it’s not about substance. It’s about making a connection.
Small talk picture from Shutterstock
You probably don’t make a bunch of small talk with people you already know and like. Sure, you may have to go through routine pleasantries with someone at the office, or a distant relative. When it comes to the people you know well and choose to associate with, however, you’ve already moved on to more worthwhile conversations. The reason you’re able to do this, argues news site Vox, is because small talk serves the function of making a connection:
Small talk… is speech that prioritises social function. Think of this exchange: “How’s it going?” “Oh, pretty good.” There’s not zero semantic content in there — presumably “pretty good” excludes “dying at this exact moment,” so that’s some information. But the primary function of those speech acts is social, not to say something but to do something, i.e., make contact, reaffirm shared membership in a common tribe (whatever it may be), express positive feelings (and thus lack of threat), show concern, and so forth. These are not unimportant things, not “small” at all, really, but they are different from communicating semantic content.
When you’re first talking to someone new, there are a host of questions that your subconscious wants answered that can’t be dealt with via explicit conversation. You want to feel safe, feel welcomed, and have a sense of belonging.
Small talk may feel like you’re not saying anything of substance, but if you do it right, you’re communicating plenty of very important information. It’s just not overtly verbalized.