Small talk with coworkers in the break room and pleasantries exchanged with office staff are more meaningful than you might think, according to an Academy of Management Journal article.
Contrary to the perception that small talk—brief, superficial, or trivial conversations unrelated to work—is inconsequential, researchers have found that chit-chat:
“As we broke down daily interaction, we realized our most meaningful interactions are not when we’re talking about actual work. It’s when we’re greeting administrative staff, or the friendly gabbing before a meeting,” said Jessica R. Methot of Rutgers University and University of Exeter. Methot and coauthors Emily H. Rosado-Solomon of California State University Long Beach, Patrick E. Downes of Texas Christian University, and Allison S. Gabriel of University of Arizona, wrote “Office Chit-Chat as a Social Ritual: The Uplifting Yet Distracting Effects of Daily Small Talk at Work.”
Methot said they chose to study small talk at work because it’s so pervasive, but its effects are generally discounted. In fact, a 1995 study found that small talk makes up one-third of adults’ speech.
“It’s very superficial interaction, but it’s meaningful,” Methot said. “We don’t give it its due. For me, it’s about building culture and collaboration.”
To measure the impact of small talk on employee well-being, the researchers surveyed 151 full-time employees working at traditional 9 to 5 jobs outside the home. After controlling for participants’ baseline engagement for small talk, the researchers queried about levels of small talk throughout the day, and asked respondents to rate their emotions, work productivity, and overall engagement. Participants completed three surveys a day—morning, early afternoon, and evening—for 15 consecutive workdays.
“It didn’t matter if you were an introvert whose average amount of small talk was lower than what it is for an extrovert, small talk enhanced employees’ daily positive social emotions and contributed to employees feeling connected,” Methot said.
Methot was quick to explain what small talk is not. It is not gossip. It is not long-winded ranting about an ineffective supervisor. It is not a sensitive discussion about someone’s personal life. “It is surface level. It is ‘Weather looks great this weekend, any plans?’ Surface level is what gives it its benefits.”
While the researchers learned that small talk lifts employees’ emotions, they also found that chit-chat disrupted some employees’ ability to stay on task with their work. However, employees who possessed a higher level of self-monitoring could effectively disengage from small talk to mitigate the distraction. Overall, however, Methot said the effects of small talk in the workplace are mostly positive.
Rather than “shush” small talk as a waste of time, managers can embrace small talk as a way to improve coworkers’ relationships, team morale, and productivity. Supervisors who create space for small talk will benefit from increased collaboration, creativity, and more inclusiveness, the authors wrote. This applies to in-person meetings as well as virtual meetings.
“It’s about building a positive culture,” Methot said. “We know how awkward it is when we walk into a room and someone ignores us. People need to be greeted and acknowledged. It is no different on a Zoom call in our current remote-working culture. It’s a social lubricant.”
To facilitate small talk, managers should allow time before a meeting begins for employees to get comfortable and “shoot the breeze.” Give them time to greet each other and have relaxed interactions. “Don’t dive right in. Grease the wheels,” Methot said.
Because small talk builds trust and connections, it also can lead to creative ideas and foster inclusiveness.
“Culturally, there are differences in the content and cadence of small talk, which can create a barrier for new employees to engage with colleagues. In this age of greater awareness about diversity and inclusion, small talk can be an asset to a company. It can be a road to more inclusion by helping socialize and embed employees into the organizational culture. Don’t underestimate its value,” Methot said.