There are plenty of reasons to hate small talk. First and foremost, it’s generally pretty boring. Discussing your weekend plans, the recent rain, or who won last night’s game hardly seem to inspire meaningful connection.
Then there’s the fact that for less outgoing folks, making small talk can be stressful—just another social interaction they’d prefer to avoid. Finally, we are all so busy these days that there is a real premium on efficiency. Productivity advice often focuses on how to stay on task and get work done—the exact opposite of idly chatting around the microwave.
When you think about all these downsides, small talk seems like it ought to be eliminated. But casual conversation—whether at the start of a company-wide meeting, with fellow parents at a school event, or when you’re waiting in line at the airport—serves a real social purpose. These are four reasons to up your small talk game:
Human beings have dominated planet Earth because of our ability to cooperate with each other. Cooperation happens because people feel like they are part of a team, and not because of a set of boxes on an org chart. You are not going to feel highly motivated to help out other people because you sit in the same area of the building, or because a supervisor told you that you had to.
It is your social connection to others that greases the gears of cooperation. Small talk is a significant part of creating that social connection. When you have brief conversations about topics outside of the work that you’re doing, you solidify the bond with another person in a way that makes more goal-directed conversations and requests flow smoothly.
In order to communicate effectively with other people, you have to know what they know and what they don’t. Almost every sentence you speak involves both given information and new information. The given information refers to something that you and your conversation partner are both aware of. The new information is something that the speaker knows but the hearer does not. Saying “Sandra got a promotion yesterday” presumes that the hearer knows who Sandra is (and what a promotion is) but not that Sandra just got a promotion.
In order to have conversations like this effectively, you have to be able to estimate the common ground you share with a conversation partner. That common ground is the knowledge that both of you are likely to share. Part of the way that you establish what you know in common is by recognizing common interests, common group membership, and people you know in common.
Small talk is a great way to recognize the areas of common ground you have. For example, when someone talks about an event they attended, they’re telling you about their interests, which may be useful in figuring out what and who they know.
Your likelihood of being included in projects at work depends in part on people thinking of you when they are putting together a group of people to collaborate. That means that you would like to be a richly represented individual in the memories of the people you work with.
Obviously, your effectiveness at work will play a role in whether people remember you and think positively about your contributions. But, people also tend to gravitate toward people who are both effective and easy to work with. The better you are at having good social conversations with others, the more that you will be memorable to others and also the higher the likelihood that you will be thought of as an interesting person to work with. So, small talk can create opportunities for you in the future.
An important part of people’s engagement in the workplace is whether they feel like they have friends at work. People clearly want to feel productive at work, and they want to feel like the mission of the organization is important and fits with their values. But, they also want to have people at work that they look forward to seeing and spending time with.
The small talk you exchange with colleagues creates a tighter bond. It will make the workplace more fun for you, and it will also increase the engagement that your colleagues have with the organization.
In all of these ways, then, small talk is not wasted time. It does a lot of work solidifying social relationship and improving communication that make you and your colleagues more effective in the long run.
If you find that you’re not that good at making small talk with others, get in the habit of keeping up with cultural events that are likely to be the basis of small talk. Take a quick look at entertainment news or sports headlines to see what topics people are likely to be discussing. Think about recent experiences you have had on vacation or at a restaurant that might be interesting to others. Even if you’re naturally shy, you can often find a few topics that will help you engage the people around you.