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Is There A Small-Talk Gender Gap?

New research shows that men do better in negotiations when they chitchat beforehand, but for women, small talk makes no difference.

Is There A Small-Talk Gender Gap?
[Photo: Flickr user THaeuSalRang]

There are plenty of nonverbal strategies you can use to seal a business deal. From offering the other person a warm beverage and a soft chair, to touching them lightly on the arm, these seemingly small things set the stage for a positive interaction that builds trust and goodwill.

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But what about small talk?

Though it often gets a bad rap, chitchat about the weather, travel, or other topics not related to work can build the kind of social capital that boosts bargaining power, according to a new study by a team of researchers from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and Technische Universität in Munich, Germany, and American University’s Kogod School of Business.

The study looked into how small talk before a negotiation impacted perceptions and outcomes. The results, as evidenced by the title, “Should He Chitchat? The Benefits of Small Talk for Male Versus Female Negotiators,” revealed that a gender gap persists even when discussing the minutiae of daily life. “We saw a boost in positive negotiation outcomes for men when they engaged in small talk before the negotiation,” American University’s professor of management Alexandra Mislin said in a statement. “Even a little small talk contributed to getting a better deal.”

Unconscious bias plays a role in tilting the balance in favor of men who can schmooze.

That’s because stereotypes about women–while generally positive, the study authors point out–generally paint them as more social and communal than men. Sociolinguists found small talk is a form of gendered communication associated with women when they are in the presence of other women. In contrast, men are seen as less sociable or concerned about others.

But that actually works in their favor. When men resist the stereotype of being all business, they are viewed more positively by their conversation partner and benefit from the interaction more.

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To test this, the researchers did two studies. One was on 112 undergraduate students who were asked to answer a series of questions based on a hypothetical negotiated exchange. Some were given extra lines in the negotiation that included small talk about where they were from, and comments about the weather.

The results of this experiment showed that male negotiators who engaged in small talk before the exchange were:

  • More likable and cooperative
  • Got a higher relational satisfaction score
  • Were more likely to be selected for future negotiations

Female negotiators did not receive such a boost.

To further test this, the researchers surveyed 244 U.S. residents around age 34, 41% of which were women. They were asked to read and rate the same transcript as the college students. The results again showed that the men were rated as more likable and cooperative, and ratings of their female counterparts weren’t as positively impacted.

Related: How to Master the Fine Art of Small Talk

The researchers also found that the less likely the other party in the negotiation is to expect a little schmoozing before getting down to business also favors men because they are already perceived to be less sociable. But when it’s expected to throw a little social lubricant on the situation (think: an employment contract interview), both men and women who chitchat are perceived more favorably. But the gender gap persists there, too. Positive perception only translates into better deals for men who small talk, the study authors found.

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“Our findings reinforce the notion that men and women in the same situation, engaging in the same behavior, can experience different reactions, because of different behavioral expectations associated with their gender,” Mislin said. “But our research also suggests that there may be areas where violating stereotypes is beneficial, as we see here for the men who engage in small talk.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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