Small talk is easily dismissed as "fluff" that gets in the way of getting to the point.
But it has been shown time and time again as essential across industries and communities, acting as the bond that holds relationships together. In fact, bestselling author and speech pathologist Carol Fleming argues quite emphatically that it is a skill worth developing in her books The Serious Business of Small Talk and It's the Way You Say It.
For instance, small talk serves an essential role in healthcare and related communities where it is essential for patients to feel valued and cared for which in turn optimizes their healing. Of course small talk is equally important in sales, management, and just about any other industry you could imagine.
Here are the top five reasons small talk is important:
1. Small talk helps to establish trust
The actual topic of the talk is really immaterial. It is the gesture of time spent facing each other, exchanging pleasantries, and establishing that friendship is wanted or is possible. Nothing else is possible without this trust-building period. You don't just jump into a deep conversation, you establish initial parameters with free and easy rapport that may at first address things of little consequence, but prove necessary stepping stones towards deeper trust.
2. Small talk lays the groundwork for specific requests
Substantive conversations rarely begin from a cold start because we don’t always know what we want to talk to another person about until they casually volunteer some information relevant to the other person. This casual recognition of common ground often begins with no initial motives to that end. For example:
“Spring in full bloom, huh?"
“Yep, gorgeous day today! I played hooky and walked my Jack Russell terrier down at Ocean Beach.”
“You’ve got a Jack Russell? I’ll be getting one in about a month. How are they as puppies? I know they are really smart and can get a little devious if they’re bored, so how do you handle yours?"
“If you’re interested, I meet with a terrier group on Saturday morning at 9 am right here and a lot of them also have Jack Russells and the various issues about them—you would learn a lot more from this group from just me.
“That would be great—I’d like to come.”
Neither person knew of the other’s interest or experience with this brand of terriers, but a casual conversation about the weather revealed that common ground. This process is also something that also proves invaluable for one’s career.
3. Small talk may yield important information
A person’s particular importance to you may not be apparent as you begin the exchange, but the relevance will emerge as you pay attention to the free information being offered to you in the chat. No one will just walk up to you and say, "Hey, my company is hiring and you just seem like a good fit!” Or the love of your life is not going to come up to you and say, "You know, I just get the feeling we would it hit it off romantically!” That kind of intensity and directness is, well, a little too intense and creepy (well, at least here in the U.S. it is—in Germany they’re all about it, apparently). Everything starts with small conversations.
4. Small talk can help you out of a jam
Just chatting or a simple introduction may seem perfunctory or unimportant, but it can open doors when you might be in an emergency situation and need something. Just saying hello to your office building guard on a regular basis can come in very handy when you are locked out of your office and need him or her to let you in. If you shared small talk, that guard will trust you enough and recognize you and let you into your office, which, depending on what's at stake, can make all the difference. Small talk may be small, but it establishes a basic social bond which then makes it more likely for someone else to want to help you when you need it.
5. Small talk can convey warmth and affection
Do you ever just "hang out" or “shoot the breeze” with someone face-to-face or on the phone? It may take you nowhere in the utilitarian sense, but will strongly communicate your caring to that other person. Sure, you can have an intense sit-down conversation but too much direct intensity focused on a specific subject is overwhelming. You can establish as much with a random chat like this:
"So what you are up to?....Frying chicken! I thought you were going to give up on fried foods!...So what’s the new doctor's name?...Got a specialty? Is that right! It’s amazing you found a gerontologist. I hear they’re really hard to find. What she like?.... Well, that sounds OK… I’ve got a new doctor, too, but I haven’t actually met with him yet. He seems to have a good reputation.”
Sure, it's blah-blah-blah, but it also says "I care about you and your health. I want to know how you're doing.” So, whether you're one of those freaks that actually enjoys small talk or not, know that it is one of the best ways to establish rapport, communicate needs, get information, and establish relationships.
Now go call your grandmother!
Cover photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash