Small talk gets a lot of backlash; most people seem to think they’re too important to discuss the weather. It’s true that some small talk can feel shallow or boring, but it serves an important purpose. That’s why everyone should learn how to do it well.
In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, Irish writer Maeve Higgins states that Americans, and New Yorkers in particular, are terrible at small talk. Instead, they launch right into exactly what’s on their minds. She compares it to the gentle talk of biscuits on a train ride in her home country, which carries a secret message:
What the seemingly meaningless exchange means is we can relax. The person we’re inches away from for the afternoon is not dangerous.
Political scientist and writer Laura Seay responded on Twitter, saying that she agrees that small talk is important, but disagrees that Americans are bad at it — at least people from the south aren’t. She shared her strategic acronym: F.I.R.E.
As I am often the one stuck carrying the conversation at tables full of reserved New Englanders, here’s my go-to, handy acronym for small talk topics: FIRE. FIRE stands for:
— Laura Seay (@texasinafrica) August 5, 2018
Seay argues that you can always ask people about their family, general interests, recreational pursuits and what they do for entertainment, because it allows you to avoid the controversial topics of money, politics and religion.
In my opinion, small talk has another purpose, which is to ease the way towards forbidden topics. You’re giving people a chance to get to know you, and see if they’re comfortable with sharing more, and then a little more.
A conversation about the weather can lead to talking about what the weather is like in other places, where you’ve been, who you met along the way, and before you know it, you’re learning something deep and real about the person that you probably wouldn’t have if you just demanded they share everything with you at the start.
If you aren’t convinced that talking about nothing could lead to something, take the words of behavioural scientist Nicholas Epley, who conducted a small talk study on the Chicago Metra railroad line. Folks in the study were asked to engage and to not engage with one another, then interviewed about the experience.
Introverts and extroverts alike preferred the rides where people chatted, and he drew some interesting conclusions about what purpose small talk served for them. HuffPost rounded up his findings in a post from 2017, which indicated that small talk has a deeper meaning.
It Calms You
If you’re in a new place and nervous, going through the social conventions of chit chat can be extremely centring. Why? It makes you look away from yourself for a minute.
By shifting the focus from ourselves to others, we can transform our anxious self-talk from, “I never know what to say” to, “What I can do is say hello and show interest in another person.”
It Connects You
It’s quite beautifully phrased that “Small talk brings us into the present moment with one another”.
You might have been thinking about two different things, or feeling separated by unfamiliarity, but even a point of contact over your favourite coffee flavour (uh, mocha?) can make you feel as though you’re sharing an experience with someone. A small experience. Big experiences come with big talks, and you will build to that together.
It’s How You Learn To Be Brave
Maybe you aren’t contemptuous of small talk; it actually just freaks you out. Try to think of it as something you’re doing that’s nice for someone else, without all the pressure to “get it right”.
According to Epley’s findings, it’s actually an extremely altruistic act. By putting yourself out there, you’re allowing someone else to come out of their shell a little.
While small talk could be used to manipulate or achieve a projected gain, it also provides a golden opportunity to give, share, and join together with another human being. By taking a risk to start up a conversation with another, we are drawn out of our niche or cubicle or solitary habits. In so doing, we demonstrate our willingness to connect.
If you find reaching out to people challenging, there’s low risk to saying, “Some heat we’re having, huh?”
There will always be people who insist they want to skip all the getting to know you stuff and get right to the heart of who you are. But when you consider how much you’re doing for someone by engaging in small talk, that seems kinda selfish, doesn’t it?