Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Big Debate about Small Talk

While no one is really noticing, some serious thinkers are engaged in a big debate about small talk. While most research says that small talk is a good thing, behavioral economists Dan Ariely and Kristen Berman beg to differ. They think that it’s better to have deeply meaningful conversation than to engage in idle chatter.

As often happens, behavioral economists, pretending that their work is science, are trying to change the culture by encouraging us to develop bad habits.

Most research demonstrates that small talk is good for you. Having more social contacts, however superficial, with more people is better than having fewer deeply meaningful contacts with fewer people.

The reason is simple: If you have fewer people in your social network, you will be more sensitive and more threatened by slights, real or imagined. If you only know a few people, you will be much more anxious about losing any of them.

This makes perfectly good sense. It explains why, when someone wants to control you he will try to cut you off from your friends and family. The more isolated you are the easier you will be to manipulate. If a single human being stands between you and social oblivion you will be especially apt to do anything at all to maintain your relationship with that person.

In an essay in the Wall Street Journal Jennifer Wallace lays out the case for small talk:

A growing body of research suggests that small talk has surprising benefits. In a study published in 2014 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers found that daily interactions with casual acquaintances, like chatting with your regular barista at the coffee shop, can contribute to day-to-day well-being.

In a series of studies, participants were asked to track their daily interactions with people connected to them by “strong ties” (family and friends) and “weak ties” (acquaintances). On days when participants had more “weak tie” interactions than usual, they reported a greater sense of belonging and happiness. The researchers hypothesize that, like having a diverse financial portfolio, possessing a “diverse social portfolio might make people less vulnerable to fluctuations in their social network.”

The research considers the importance of short exchanges with people who are strangers or near-strangers. Unfortunately, the researchers feel constrained to throw empathy into the mix, but, aside from that, their conclusions ring true:

Chitchat is also an important social lubricant, helping to build empathy and a sense of community. It is much harder to snap at a taxi driver for going the wrong way if you have just exchanged pleasantries. “Children learn empathy not just by how we treat those closest to us but also by how we acknowledge the strangers around us,” adds psychologist Richard Weissbourd of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They “notice if we appreciate the server in a restaurant and say hello to the mail carrier—or if we treat them like they’re invisible.” Small talk, he notes, “can humanize others across the usual divides.”

We are not talking about deeply meaningful exchanges of intimate details about our lives. We are talking about polite, pro forma, exchanges with the letter carrier and the dry cleaner. One recalls that Robert Rubin, of Goldman Sachs, the Treasury Department and Citigroup, once said that everyone should develop the habit of being polite in all of their daily interactions. It makes you more human. It makes you more courteous. It makes it more likely that, in stressful situations, your default setting will be decorum and not drama.

Wallace offers some advice on how to engage small talk. She begins with a point that I have often made: begin by finding common ground. That means, begin by engaging a conversation about a topic that is exterior to both of you. For most people, the weather works just fine. As does one’s surroundings.

She suggests:

To strike up a conversation with a fellow party guest, ask, “How do you know the host?” says Frances Cole Jones, author of “How to Wow.” At a networking event, try, “Have you been going to a lot of these types of events? Are there any that you’ve found really useful?”

Once you have established contact and made a connection, you may move on to more personal matters. Like, how frustrating it is that the train is late:

Frustrating little moments—being stuck on the train, waiting in a long line, dealing with cranky children at the park—are a good time to initiate a conversation. Humor can help: “Um, how many hours left until bedtime?”

From there conversation might become more personal and more engaging. It depends on how well you want the other person to know you, and vice versa.

Importantly, small talk is a skill. It needs to be developed. You can only develop it by working on it. It is worth your while to do so.

Melissa Dahl reports on some recent studies about job interviews. They showed that people who were better at small talk made a better first impression. And that the first impression lasted. They also showed that people who were able to talk about objective facts—like the weather—were seen more as team players than as self-centered.

Dahl writes:

Small talk in any context is mildly terrifying. Small talk before a job interview, with the person you very much hope will offer you gainful employment, is even more so. Now, new research,summarized by the study authors themselves this week at Harvard Business Review, suggests that you were right to be wary of preinterview pleasantries: Your job interviewer is indeed likely judging you by your terrible small-talk skills.

The researchers recorded interviews with 163 “job-hungry, and realistically nervous” business-school students, starting the interviews with a quick “rapport-building phrase” — academic-speak for small talk. They then showed the videos to two groups of experts (they don’t define “expert,” but one presumes they were people with actual hiring experience). One group saw the entire thing, small talk and all; the other group saw an edited version, with the small-talk part edited out. All the group members rated the interviewees on how well they answered each question.

Again, the way to prepare for these eventualities is to develop your ability to engage in small talk in your everyday transactions… say, with the doorman.

Thus far, these studies are credible. They feel like science and they make good common sense. One cannot say the same of the work of Dan Ariely and Kristen Berman. These Duke University behavioral economists decided to test the small talk hypothesis by throwing a dinner party. They invited all the participants to play a new game, thus, to try out a new social custom. Everyone would agree not to engage in any small talk. Only profound and meaningful topics of conversation would be allowed.

Following in the footsteps of the highly dubious Martin Heidegger, Ariely and Smith explain themselves as follows:

What is your relationship with God? What is something you fear in life? These may be great topics for conversations, but we rarely tackle such meaty topics at social gatherings. Instead, our discussions usually centre around summer travel plans, the latest home repair horror story and, of course, the weather.

This is a shame, because research has confirmed what most people know but don't practise: surface level small talk does not build relationships and it is not great for our happiness levels. The obvious question: if it's not that good for us, why does it prevail?

The sad answer is that we actively seek the lowest common denominator. When left to our own devices, we have the freedom to discuss what we want, but we also feel the pressure to pick a topic that will be socially acceptable and easy for anyone to participate in - the uninteresting hallmarks of small talk.

Apparently, they are unaware of the research conducted by the people mentioned in other articles.

One notes that this experience took place in a campus setting. Considering how repressive college campuses are, considering that speech is being policed in these places, it makes sense that people would restrain themselves from discussing any matters that might be controversial.

Also, Ariely and Berman do not say whether the assembled guests had known each other before the dinner. Were they friends, colleagues of strangers? One assumes that they were not chosen at random from the telephone book, so they must either have been friends of colleagues. We know very little about, age, gender, height, weight, ethnicity or occupation. And, some people are more garrulous than others. Some people are more taciturn than others. Did this matter?

The experience feels more like a glorious anecdote than a useful exercise.

Moreover, since the economists laid down the rules, the participants were perhaps more interested in following the rules and playing the game than they were in exposing their deepest and most intimate secrets. The economists believe that once you ban small talk people will be talking about the things they really want to talk about. How do they know that people who are following a strict rule are really acting as they please? Perhaps the people just want to impress the economists. Or perhaps they like to follow rules.

Also, it all depends on who is talking to whom. If you really believe that your colleague is a self-important mediocrity would you be likely to blurt it out over dinner to people who knew said colleague?

The economists have oversimplified dinner table conversation to the point where it is barely recognizable. Under the guise of science and under the presumption that they know what people really, really want to talk about, they are teaching people a bad habit…something akin to emotional incontinence.

Finally, who should decide what is and is not meaningful. The term meaningful conversation has nothing to do with science. How do you determine scientifically what is and is not meaningful… and to whom? How do you determine scientifically what is too intimate and what is not intimate enough?

The notion of meaningful conversation comes to us from culture warriors like famed Nazi philosopher Martin Heidgger. One thing is certain, Heidegger was not trying to make people more sociable. See previous post.

Ariely and Berman conclude that everyone was happier. For all I know they themselves might have been happy to see their friends and colleagues expose their feelings about God-knows-what.

But, how do they measure happiness. By self-reporting? Would you be likely to tell a behavioral economist who is thrilled to have concocted this dubious experiment that it was a bust?There was no control experiment where the same people were invited to a dinner party where they were allowed to discuss what they wanted to discuss.

The economists are happy to see that two dates came out of the evening. Was it a mixer? Were these people married or single?

One recalls that Ariely has also suggested that people who are out on a first date expose their most intimate secrets. Conversation becomes more meaningful when you start off by asking each other whether you have any STDs.  Better yet, why not ask to see their pay stubs and their bank accounts?

We agree that this will have an effect. It does not however have a very good effect. You should not, as a general rule, confide in people you do not know. It comports too much risk. Most of us know better than to do so. It’s like hooking up with strangers. It might get a cheap thrill, but you are not going to feel very good about yourself in the morning.


Ares Olympus said...

Perhaps Ariely and Berman are practicing Trump's "Truthful hyperbole?"

At least we know internet articles need provocative titles like "Small talk should be banned - here's why" to convince people to read the article, even if it doesn't fully mean what it suggests. They can't really mean all situations, but more situations where people want to challenge themselves and challenge others.

Small talk is "safe", and when you don't care to feel safe, you are willing to take chances, and fail, and learn something new.

Or like if you have 50 job interviews planned, you can plan to fail at 95% of them and try out different approaches and not care what people think of you but evaluate after each attempt.

But if your lack of tact is building up a bad reputation, as someone who exposes too much (TMI), or asks sensitive questions that people are not ready to answer, there may be costs to such experimentation.

Still perhaps the value of more practice is being able to converse comfortably in a wide range of topics, and the more you practice, the better you'll do? And perhaps people do get "stuck" on certain safe topics like the weather, and your exploring will identify other "safe" and novel topics to keep people entertained.

You never know but you have to risk failure to find out. (And sometimes you'll never find out how you failed, if you were offensive, unless you're close enough to people to be able to ask, and say you'd like an honest answer.)

Toastmasters for example has "Tabletopics" time where each person is required to speak 1-2 minutes on a topic without any foreknowledge, so a it is a sort of monologue, but chance to go beyond small talk, and you can learn how to think on your feet, especially if you're in a safe place where "failure" is okay.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Any bets that Ariely and Berman aren't very good at small talk?

So many "studies" purport to uncover amazing insights which really reflect the biases of the hypothesists.

Small talk is an effort to connect, not confide. Intimacy is valued because it is rare. People who have lots of acquaintances, but few intimate relationships, tend to be superficial. People who have few intimate relationships, but few/no acquaintances, tend to be insufferable... believing every interaction an opportunity to bear their souls and discover a new bosom friend. Like the people who constantly bear their souls to the world, they have a tendency to vomit their emotions. This is why I refer to Facebook as "The Vomitorium."

I'm sure Heidegger was an insufferable acquaintance, friend, colleague or interlocutor. He was more likely a pedantic blabbermouth.

Dennis said...


I have almost given up asking "How are you doing today?" or a similar opening to conversation like "Good Morning". Like your insights as I have noticed the same or somewhat familiar things.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Dennis @October 5, 2016 at 5:50 AM:

You mean when you say "How are you doing today?" you don't like hearing someone you've just met tell you about their marriage problems, STDs, astrological predictions or feelings about the situation in Tibet?

I'm with ya, man. I think all these talk shows, reality TV programs and social media outlets have inoculated people to the idea of humility, modesty and even... shame. If you don't empathize with their lifestyle and celebrate their choices, you're a louse, jerk or bigot.

It's exhausting.

Dennis said...


It does seem that many people have lost sight of the good things in their life and life in general. One of those joys used to be "small talk," with the emphasis of small. It is how we became neighbors, acquaintances and saw other people as much like ourselves.