Let’s Chat

This week’s column: Chatty Cathy May Have Been Onto Something

So many of us distain small talk and dismiss it as inconsequential. Chit chat. An exchange of weather reports. Little more than a passing “How are you” –“Fine” conversation. Googling the term “small talk” fares no better. One definition deems it “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters”; another calls it “an informal discourse that does not cover any functional topics” and scoffs that it is merely “conversation for its own sake.” Ellen DeGeneres says that she hates “having to do small talk. I’d rather talk about deep subjects…..meditation, or the world, or the trees or animals, than small inane…banter.”

I disagree with Ellen whose career, let’s face it, is in part based on inane banter. Since when did we all become so “deep” that we cannot exchange a pleasantry or two? Meditation, the world, trees and animals can wait. The first thing out of my mouth in a social situation is not going to be something earth shatteringly important or environmentally relevant. Small talk gauges your audience so that you can decide whether keeping up a conversation is worthwhile or should end with a smile and wave goodbye. It is a way in, or as Georgetown Professor Deborah Tannen says: “Small talk is meant to be small. It gets you on friendly ground, and it’s a foundation for when you have something more to say.”

Tannen is quoted in an article by Gloria M. Wong called “I Made Chitchat Meaningful Again”. Wong says that scientists who have studied small talk conclude that it is “like birds touching beaks, we use it to reassure each other that we’re pals.” Wong believes that small talk leads to “big talk” or disclosing something that teeters on the border of TMI (too much information), but does not actually go there. She tells a tale of sharing something with an acquaintance that was slightly revealing which led to the acquaintance then sharing a little about herself. My argument is that this connection could not have been made without the requisite small talk first. Small talk broke the ice.

This topic came to my attention last week. My sister called me and said: “I have a topic for you to write about.” She then told me that someone had accused her of “being good at small talk”, and she was not sure whether this was a compliment or not. She felt like the statement was not an accolade but a (not very well) veiled criticism. We talked for a bit about the topic and came to the conclusion that being good at small talk leads to talking about the bigger things, or the deeper things as Ellen likes to call them. Small talk, when done correctly, makes the other person feel that you are interested. It goes beyond the quick “How are you doing?” as you continue walking and not waiting for an answer.

So many people dismiss small talk and my theory is that they just do not take the time to do it well. I find it difficult at times, but once I realized that I like it when someone takes an interest in me I have tried to cultivate it. Small talk is sharing your time and interest with someone. It is a building block for conversation and a way to make a connection. And what friendship has not begun with small talk?

Actress Courtney Cox declares that she is not good at “small talk”. I have seen her interviewed and if an interview (Hollywood style) is not small talk, then I do not know what is. Small talk is a window into a conversation; it opens the door.

imageLiterary agent, Andrew Wylie declares: “I don’t do Twitter or blog. I’m bad at small talk, and don’t have good chat. Talk to me about publishing, and I can go on for hours.” Not to put too fine point on it, but Andrew, conversation is about give and take—I am not all that interested in you going on and on about one subject without ever asking a question, or being curious about the person you are talking to.

Small talk is a social grace. Many a meal has been spoiled by those who insist on getting their voices heard, their opinions opined, and even their rants pronounced before dessert. I say wait until dessert is over, and then delve into the deeper subjects while doing the dishes.

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Published in: on February 3, 2015 at 2:29 pm  Comments (24)  
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24 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Perfect, love your take on what small talk is….making a connection. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Well done Lou!

  2. Hmmmmmm. (extrovert’s view?)

  3. I agree.. small talk often opens the door to a deeper level… I find myself more and more engaging conversation at doctor’s offices, in a grocery line etc. Recently by the time the lady in front paid for her groceries and checked out… I learned her mother had MS but was in the hospital because of an aneurysm.. her father Alzheimers’ and she, being the only child was kept pretty busy caring for them …but she wasn’t bitter or anything.. very nice.. I found out more info and it wasn’t a nosy inquiry or anything… just ‘chatting’ back and forth…. Diane

    • and you do know that you made a big difference in her life–allowing her to talk and being a wonderful listener

      • Thanks Lou Ann… I hope so. We need to be aware of others in our life…. Diane

  4. No surprise that I’m totally with you on this one – not every conversation needs (or should) be of such profundity that one gasps with its weightiness. Nor is every conversation that is ‘small’ to be construed as inane or unnecessary, for they invariably begin with ‘How are you?’ and um, how critical is that? Perhaps it’s not about the conversation – it’s about how we listen. Just wondering.. 😉

  5. Excellent post, LouAnn. 🙂

  6. Totally agree with you. And I don’t think small talk has to be shallow, it’s more about making an effort to be polite and pleasant and interested in people. I spend a fair amount of time at social gatherings with other homeschoolers, and it is much nicer when people are good at “small talk”. Moving to a new area showed me that some people didn’t even try- they would just talk to their close friends and ignore newcomers, so they didn’t have to make the effort. I think even with the rise of children “on the spectrum” so to speak, people should still be taught how to be socially graceful and interact normally with others as much as possible.

  7. Bravo Lou! I so agree with you. I fear it’s becoming a lost art, but sometimes it’s nice to make small talk while standing in line. Too often, I see people who are so focused on their phones, they run into things and people and they certainly don’t have time for small talk. It’s a social convention that can we all did once and it truly can make a person’s day. It’s made mine before and I feel the same when I’ve done that to someone else, a stranger in line, a person behind a counter. It’s that looking someone in the eye, saying something nice, exchanging pleasantries, no matter how banal, it matters. And you know me, I love me some banter. 😉

    Great post, Lou.

    • Banter….Mmm reminds me of a blog I once read. Get the hint?

      • I get it–sometimes though I am not one for the obvious

  8. So, how have you been? You were hit pretty bad with that storm over the weekend weren’t you? See, I can still do it :).

  9. I’ve always thought of small talk as a skill, LouAnn. A skill in which I was inadequately instructed and I’m uncomfortable using. Therefore, I’m grateful for the adept practitioner who can coax me into the pleasantries. Thank you! 🙂 xoxoM

  10. Great post! You might enjoy reading The Fine Art of Small Talk by Debra Fine.

  11. Great post! I use small talk with lonely patients at our cancer hospital all the time. You are right on! And sometimes, that “small talk” leads to “big talk”.

  12. When I was younger, I used to think I hated small talk. As I’ve (hopefully) grown up, I started to see the benefits of it which you’ve written out so wonderfully here. Like you said, every relationship and connection starts with conversation and if you don’t engage in small talk, how would you ever even manage to get to the deep stuff? I think there’s a good and bad way to engage in small talk and usually I do my best to hone in on something interesting that the other person said to turn the conversation into something better. Great post! 🙂

    • I felt the same way when I was younger–but now see small talk as a way into big talk


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