Wednesday, July 21, 2021

In Praise of Small Talk

Among the lessons that we ought to have drawn from our experience with lockdowns and social distancing are these. First, the value of weak social ties, the everyday interactions with people we barely know. Second, the importance of small talk.

Weak social ties give us a sense of our bearings in the social whirl. Small talk allows us to make a superficial connection and to affirm our membership in a group. 

Social psychologists have long since emphasized the value of both of these, but we are obliged to note that many therapists and even philosophers have disparaged them. These latter declaim against idle chatter and place more value on deeply soulful emotional sharing, punctuated with meaningful expressions of big ideas. 

In other words, they want everyday conversations to feel more like therapy. This tends to validate their own work, which involves learning a new, dysfunctional mode of communication.

If you go back to modern therapy’s beginnings, with Freudian psychoanalysis, the mode of communication is completely abnormal. Lying on a couch talking to a wall, pretending to ignore the presence of the person sitting behind you, is not the way people communicate under any normal circumstances.

Speaking without a filter is similarly abnormal. When you wonder why so many people have no filter, consider it a bad habit that they learned through therapy. 

Anyway, Olivia Evans has written an excellent article on small talk for New York Magazine. Her thesis, which correlates well with mine, has it that people do not engage in small talk because they do not know how. Given that we do not know how, we are not very good at it. Thus, we avoid it. Consider this a direct consequence of living in a therapy culture that devalues small talk.

Evans explains:

While the world opening back up has been exciting, it comes with the dreaded return of social situations that require small talk. After a year of being out of practice with public encounters of all kinds (public transit, parties, the infamous office watercooler), it might feel like an ordeal simply to engage in frivolous chitchat, and you’re definitely not alone if your first few in-person interactions post-lockdown made you think you’ve lost all social skills. 

Fortunately, some people are studying the problem. They are not in the psycho world, but are in the business world. That is, they are more interested in social psychology than in therapy, per se.

Luckily, Nicholas Epley, a professor who specializes in behavioral science at University of Chicago Booth Business School, says we can expect a quick bounce back into our old social habits. The thing is, reverting to old habits isn’t necessarily good news when it comes to small talk. “My suggestion that we’ll return back to normal doesn’t mean that conversation will be flowing and alive. There are lots of times when it’s weird for people. Small talk will still be as awkward as it ever was,” Epley says. Small talk was widely disliked long before we spent a year inside. But our discomfort is mostly in instigating a conversation, rather than the act of conversing itself.

For his part Epley has discovered that small talk is good for us. Since therapy disparages it, we are not surprised to hear that it contributes to our emotional well being:

Epley has spent years researching our general aversion to engaging in conversations with strangers. The overwhelming reality is that while we might say we dislike small talk, or even consider ourselves bad at it, it does make us happier to partake in it (no matter how awkward it is).

In Epley’s most recent study with Juliana Schroeder, “Hello, Stranger?”, they found that while commuters on the London Underground knew that socializing would make their rides more enjoyable, they still felt apprehensive toward starting a conversation — out of fear of people around them not being interested in chatting, or fear of simply failing to strike up a conversation.

As for how you can improve your skills at small talk, Epley correctly recommends that you “just try it.” You are not going to improve your skill at small talk by trying to unearth the meaning of your aversion to small talk:

According to Epley, the best thing you can do to get better at small talk is to just try it, because the biggest hindrance to building our skills is our negative perception of the conversation going in. In “Hello, Stranger?”, participants consistently underestimated how much they would enjoy engaging in conversation during their commute. At the same time, overwhelmingly, participants who were asked to spend their commute socializing felt happier than those who weren’t. When it comes to small talk, we all suffer from pluralistic ignorance. Put simply, part of the reason we hate small talk so much is because we think everyone else hates it, not because we have any kind of negative experience with it. Next time you’re in a situation that might involve chitchat, remind yourself that the people around you want to socialize just as much as you do, and the conversation might not feel so miserable.

Another tip: put away the cell phone:

According to the study, cell phones have (obviously) become a massive impediment to social interaction, and act as a signifier for disinterest in conversation. If you are looking to get better at small talk, it helps to make yourself more approachable for others to engage in conversation with you. So remember to take out your AirPods next time you’re on the train or picking up coffee.

Evans concludes:

This advice might seem a little redundant, but truthfully, the best way to get better at small talk is by practicing and engaging in it. No matter how awkward it feels at first, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by how much happier meaningless conversation makes you.


SonOfSobieski said...

I liked the "put down the cell phone" quote.
I used to enjoy air travel and the social interaction with travelers I met along the way. Now, people are attached to their smarty phones and the interaction is minimal.
However, sitting a bar at the airport allows me to talk to people without that limitation.
Where are you going? Where are you from? I enough such "small talk".

urbane legend said...

It's easy to get a conversation started if you can make a joke about something going on around you. Laughing, or at least smiling, people are much easier to talk to. Obviously, that humor should not be crude. Works for me.

Webutante said...

Goes to show, it's the little things that are often the big things. And we never know when it brightens someone else's or our day.

Sam L. said...

I am a man of few words. That's my small talk. Unless my mouth opens the dam...aye, there's the flood.

markedup2 said...

When I was (much) younger I hated small talk. Who cares about the weather, the Packers, or the state of the roads?

About twenty years ago, I moved to Denver (and I am about to leave) and decided that being an introvert sucked, so I made a huge (for me) effort to get out and engage with people. I learned exactly what you state here: It's easier once you start doing it and it makes a big difference in both how you feel and how others perceive you. No one I know in Denver can even imagine me as an introvert. It's still "work" for me, though; albeit rewarding work.

My coworkers don't seem to appreciate small talk via Instant Messaging, but most of them are Eastern Europeans, so the sample is culturally skewed.