How to get over your fear of small talk
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Comments about temperature are often cited as an example of boring conversation, but perhaps the least devastating impact of climate change is the fact that talking about the weather is now extremely interesting. In fact, often the weather is all I am want to talk about it, because aside from being a grim reminder of the horrors people have wreaked upon our homes, it’s also, on rare occasions, mysterious and wonderful. But it doesn’t matter what the weather is like, it doesn’t matter what you saw on TV last night or what you did last weekend, because that’s not the point of small talk.
In recent years there has been a strong cultural resistance to small talk, or at least the idea of it. A cursory search of Twitter shows someone slightly virally tweeting at least once a day about how much they’re doing to hate small talk. It’s a common marketing strategy on dating apps (eg, “Let’s skip the small talk and get straight to the point”). This same website even published an article by a staunch Smalltalk hater on why Smalltalk is so “excruciating.”
i hate small talk i want to hear about your childhood, your favorite smells, what music you like, your religious beliefs, where you want to live when you get old, what keeps you up at night, how much certain things mean to you, your insecurities & fears.
— . (@httpsnimroood) July 28, 2022
To a certain extent, the haters are right. You can only endure so much Tinder back and forth that begins and ends with “How was your weekend?” until you make small talk pointless. Maybe, like many of us, you dread the moment when you’re asked what you’re up to for the rest of the summer and your brain decides to take a vacation. Or you might experience the other problem of spilling your deepest secrets to a co-worker out of nervousness or masochism or too many cocktails. (I have never done that!)
This combination of stage fright and the perceived insignificance of it all is a powerful deterrent. But however painful it may be for some, small talk — which can be defined as light, polite conversation about trivial topics, either to start or end a social interaction or simply to fill silence — has a purpose beyond time of the interface – waste and cookie cutter DMs. Meredith Marra, a linguistics professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, has studied the social function of small talk for decades and says the very people who complain about it don’t realize how often they use it in everyday life . “There are some very masculine workplaces where if you don’t make small talk, it all stops,” she explains. “We can’t just go straight to work because we haven’t formed our relationship yet. And if we don’t realize we’re on the same page, how on earth are we supposed to do the other stuff?”
She claims that small talk is about more than avoiding awkward silences; it’s social glue. “Otherwise you’re just two people, not two people connected and trying the same thing,” she says.
That small talk makes us happier isn’t new news: In 2014, University of Chicago psychologist and scholar Nicholas Epley conducted an experiment in which some subway commuters were told to strike up a conversation with the stranger , who sat next to them while others were urged to abide by themselves. Those who talked enjoyed the ride more, and the longer the conversation lasted, the happier they felt. This was true even for people who generally preferred solitude: “Those who misunderstand the consequences of social interactions may not be social enough for their own well-being, at least in some contexts,” writes Epley.
“I hate small talk” I don’t. the weather was crazy. let’s revel in our shared experience and get closer as individuals
— (@realaccountyeah) July 22, 2022
Small talk is also a useful tool for building friendships. in the women talk, Linguistic scholar Jennifer Coates, published in 1996, argues that gossip between women, often dismissed as frivolous and unimportant, actually builds and sustains relationships through multi-layered communicative means such as storytelling, questioning, and repetition. Even if the conversation isn’t “important” in the traditional sense, maybe that’s part of the joy: a little escape from the serious, a respite from the heavier matters.
Nowhere has the importance of casual encounters been more evident than during the pandemic, when researchers found that people who live close to others and are therefore more likely to encounter such encounters perform better emotionally than those living alone. “I’ve become incredibly grateful to my neighbors,” said Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute, which has provided resources on etiquette for 76 years. “Even those very simple ‘how’s your day?’ interactions that happened across the fence became valuable.”
The pandemic has had other, stranger effects on how we make small talk. According to the Post, the institute typically categorizes topics of conversation into levels: Level one is what we think is appropriate for small talk — safe, comfortable areas that don’t need to be super personal. Stage two could go a little deeper: conversations you might be having at a party or with acquaintances. The third stage issues, on the other hand, are quite personal and are discussed primarily with family and friends in the inner circle.
In recent years, Post has noticed a shift: “We tend to categorize medical histories as stage three, but I’ve found many more people are willing to disclose what part of their medical journey they’re going through.” The number of people saying, ‘Yeah, I had a colonoscopy yesterday’ is killing me, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.” (Same with finances, perhaps because the pandemic has so many of our systemic Inequalities has revealed that discussing our individual experiences no longer feels isolating, but instead helps us connect.)
It’s certainly reasonable to want to avoid discussing your recent invasive medical procedure with a stranger on the bus or on a first date, but there are many other reasons people hate small talk that go deeper than just discomfort. For some disabled or neurodivergent people, unplanned social interactions are recipes for sensory overload and stress. Also, their dislikes of these situations can often have consequences beyond the conversation. “People think we’re not team players because we don’t want to go to social things or make small talk. It’s pretty stressful having those water cooler conversations,” said Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, consultant for workplace neurodiversity. But, she says, that doesn’t mean that neurodivergent people should automatically shoulder the burden of adjusting to the neurotypical world. “It’s basically a dissipator trying to get people to be ‘normal.’ It dampens our uniqueness.”
Morgan-Trimmer recalls taking a group class to practice small talk after she was diagnosed with autism. “Everyone in my group said, ‘I don’t want that. Why should I do that?'”
What would truly inclusive small talk look like? Morgan-Trimmer suggests that people can help make others feel more comfortable by asking closed-ended questions rather than open-ended questions. “Don’t ask ‘How was your weekend?’ Ask ‘What did you really enjoy that weekend?’ You can also ask specific follow-up questions to learn about flavor and color. ‘I went to the beach’ doesn’t mean anything to me, but ‘I went to the beach and I went swimming and built a sandcastle and got sand in my eyes’ is a story.”
Of course, context matters, especially within different cultures. “In New Zealand, if you get on the elevator and don’t say anything, so be it So uncomfortable,” says Marra. “But we know that migrants who are new to the workplace often don’t want to make small talk because they think it’s not what you do at work, that it’s a waste of time. As a result, colleagues often think they don’t belong.” Along with other researchers, she has worked with government agencies to create resources for migrants and employers on how to adapt and better understand each other.
A common misconception about small talk is that it’s an innate talent that people either have or don’t have. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that complicated. “You don’t have to be great at it,” says Marra. “If someone asks you, ‘How are you?’ You can just say “Good” and return it. As long as you give it back and you’re a good viewer, you’re giving someone else a chance to shine.”
“I’m a big believer in the idea that etiquette and manners can be things to turn to when you’re really unsure of what to do,” Post adds. “It can help give you a lot of confidence and take the pressure off of having to be totally original.”
I think this is why most people mistakenly tell themselves they’re bad at small talk: we put so much pressure on the interaction that it becomes impossible to succeed. I tend to convince myself that I’ve failed to be interesting enough unless a conversation lands somewhere “deeper” than, say, a first-level topic. But the value of small talk is significant in itself.
“Checking in at this superficial level doesn’t mean you’re wrong or wrong,” says Post. “It more authentically reflects our actual lives. Not every day is terribly exciting.” Neither is every person. And that’s okay.