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3 steps to master small talk and build better relationships

Even shallow chit-chat has far-reaching consequences.

From witty banter to deep philosophical conversations, few forms of communication are as dreaded as small talk. It’s the long-standing cultural norm of asking: How’s the weather? Got any fun plans this weekend? Or at its most basic -- a straightforward how are you?

Small talk or chit-chat, known to psychologists as short, superficial, or trivial communication not core to task completion, fills a third of daily speech. We do it every day, yet many people go out of their way to avoid it.

But according to Jessica Methot, an organizational psychologist who studies workplace communication, we’ve underestimated the value of small talk.

Often, people think small talk is pointless, awkward, inauthentic, or takes a lot of work. But research shows people who engage in regular chit-chat have better well-being and stronger relationships. That’s because small talk is a social lubricant and the foundation of any relationship, Methot says.

“The value of small talk is that it is superficial, that we don't have to dive deep into intimate topics, that it's surface level, that it's brief, and that it still shows we recognize someone else's value and that we think they're important enough to acknowledge their presence,” Methot tells Inverse. “And that leaves that other person walking away feeling really good.”

This week, Strategy explores how to master small talk and turn the polarizing communication tactic into a tool to build better relationships.

I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.

The rise of chit-chat — It turns out, everyone engages in small talk across all cultures and communities, from English tea rooms to rural Papua New Guinea, Methot explains.

“While the content of the small talk is different, the cadence of the small talk is the same across all cultures,” Methot says. Research shows people bounce back and forth with brief normative scripted language across all societies and across time.

But even though small talk is pervasive, people make one crucial mistake when they think about it, whether they’re pondering their morning run-in with a neighbor or an initial icebreaker with a colleague.

"Small talk is overlooked and discounted."

“Don't underestimate how good you are at it,” Methot cautions. “We ruminate much more than any other person we're having that conversation with. Our research shows the other person walked away feeling really great.”

Why small talk matters — Methot never set out to study small talk but instead kept hearing from subjects about the surprising value of their spontaneous interactions.

“They would have these ‘corridor chats’ when they would bump into each other in the hallway, and that would spark a lot of really interesting conversation for them,” Methot explains.

So Methot and her team designed an experiment to determine the outcomes of those conversations. They published their findings in June in the Academy of Management.

In the study, on days when people engaged in more small talk, they also exhibited more positive emotions and were better able to recover from a stressful workday. People did acknowledge they felt more distracted on days with lots of chatting, but the researchers said the positive, pro-social outcomes buffered this negative side effect.

“Small talk is overlooked and discounted often by supervisors who see people chatting with each other, tend to think they're not doing work, and then try to shut it down,” Methot says. “For leaders, trying to understand how valuable it is to give employees the opportunity to connect can be useful versus interrupting, shutting it down, sending them back to their desks.”

Small talk offers surprising value because it’s the “foundation of relationships,” Methot says. If you can’t engage in small talk, you're unlikely to be able to build a stronger, more trusting relationship with someone, she adds.

“Small talk is also a way to grease the wheels; it's a social lubricant,” Methot says. So we wouldn't really dive into negotiations or performance evaluations or an interview without having small talk first, she adds. It helps us disengage from one activity and engage in a new one.

Mastering the game of small talk— While some people may seem naturally gifted at chatting it up informally, small talk isn’t an innate ability. For many people, especially outsiders in a foreign land or people with certain disabilities that make it difficult to read others’ behavior, small talk is challenging.

Luckily, it's a skill that can be built through these three steps: sticking to the script, practicing, and keeping it simple.

“Just like anything else, if we can acknowledge the benefits to our work, to our well-being, and to our ability to help our co-workers — and that those connections are so vital to our success and to our well-being — we're more willing to invest in becoming better at it and develop it as you would a skill,” Methot says.

Three rules for small talk

  1. Stick to the script: Methot splits conversation content into three tiers. Tier one: safe, small talk topics like the weather, sports, food. Tier two: More controversial things like religion and politics, which you would generally want to skip if you're just kind of greeting someone, checking in, and asking how they're doing. Tier three: topics like family issues, finances, and personal health concerns are reserved for close and more intimate conversations. Generally, small talk skates on the surface, so stick to tier one topics.
  2. Keep it simple: Small talk doesn’t have to be lengthy or complicated. Methot notes we get the same benefits from just saying hi, waving, and smiling to someone as we do engaging in a deeper conversation. “Just acknowledging someone creates that shared sense of recognition and solidarity and says, ‘I recognize that you're here and I acknowledge you.’”
  3. Practice, practice, practice: After many of these interactions, people often see they’re really not that bad, Methot says. Methot suggests designating one time during the day when you normally would walk into the building with your head down, but instead, look up and greet someone. For those working remotely, try to make space for casual conversations in meetings. “Make sure the first five minutes is everyone saying hi and having a chance to introduce themselves or say how they're doing,” Methot suggests.

With these strategies, small talk won’t instantly go from painful to painless. But these tips will be useful the next time you’re early to a Zoom meeting or bump into an acquaintance on the train.

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