Explained: Small Talk

“Small talk.” We’ve all heard of it, and most of us try to avoid it. But what is it, really? And why do we do it? Contrary to popular belief, small talk isn’t just pointless chit-chat. It actually has a lot of value and purpose. Read on to find out more!

Explained: Small Talk

Small talk is the kind of conversation you have with someone you don’t know well or someone you’re not particularly close to. It’s the kind of chatter that happens at parties, on elevators, or waiting in line with little or no emotional weight. Even though this type of discourse is meant to be superficial, it is a great way to break the ice and get to know someone better. In this blog post, we’ll dig a little deeper and find out where this type of communication comes from and why we’ll never be able to get rid of it.

The Origin of Small Talk

Small talk is one of the essential elements of interpersonal communication. Though it may seem trivial at first glance, the origins of this practice go back centuries – all the way to 1751, to be exact. That was when British politician Philip Dormer Stanhope, better known as the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, first used the term “small talk” in his writings. He used it as a synonym for “chit-chat,” making lighthearted conversation with others seem more socially acceptable and less awkward.

Chesterfield quickly became famous through his published letters to his son Philip Stanhope (yes, both father and son were called “Philip”). He sought to prepare his son for a career in diplomacy and reflect upon their social circle’s customs and moral concepts. Within these letters, he also provided plenty of advice on navigating social situations and achieving success within high society. And despite its seemingly frivolous nature, Chesterfield considered small talk a valuable tool that could be used strategically in these contexts. Indeed, we can see today just how valuable this tactic can be – whether we’re engaging in casual conversations at work or networking at events with business contacts.

At a later point in history, “small talk” was observed from an anthropological point of view by Polish-British anthropologist Bronisław Kasper Malinowski. Malinowski discussed the purpose and value of small talk in his essay “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages” in 1923. In this essay, he noted that “small talk” does not serve to convey information but instead helps create bonds of personal union. He referred to this type of exchange as “phatic communion,” from the Greek word “phatos,” which means “spoken.” Hence, according to Malinowski, small talk fulfills one of humanity’s fundamental needs: the desire for companionship, thus making “small talk” a form of social bonding rather than communication. While small talk may seem trivial, we now know that it plays a vital role in social interactions by helping establish connections without crossing boundaries.

How Small Talk Has Changed Over Time

Small talk is often viewed as a necessary evil simply since it can seem so blatantly dull and tedious. In today’s fast-paced world, many people simply don’t have the time to engage in small talk, seeing it as a pointless distraction from more meaningful pursuits. Others see it as a mere act of filling the awkward silence when two people struggle to find something to talk about. However, those with more interest in social skills would argue otherwise. If we look at it from a different perspective, we can see how valuable this simple form of speech truly is.

Though the ways we engage in small talk may have changed over time, the underlying purpose of these brief exchanges has not. Small talk is essential for building relationships and facilitating discussion in nearly all settings, ranging from boardrooms and professional networking events to social gatherings and first dates. Small talk helps us initiate conversations and gain valuable insights about others through their responses, giving people an opportunity to interact and get to know one another before moving on to more substantive discussions. Additionally, small talk acts as a bridge between people of different backgrounds, allowing us to connect with others by sharing common interests or experiences, regardless of our differences.

By learning how to engage effectively in Small Talk and other forms of social language, we not only strengthen our relationships with others but also enrich the fabric of society as a whole. And for this reason, Small Talk will always be an essential part of modern life.

Why Do So Many People Still “Hate” To Make Small Talk?

Again, small talk is the kind of conversation you have with someone you don’t know well or don’t know at all. It’s the polite conversation you make when you’re stuck in an elevator or waiting in line. So it’s hard to think of things to say when you don’t know the other person very well. You might also worry about saying something that will make the other person uncomfortable or upset. This means that while small talk is relatively easy to initiate, it’s certainly not always easy to keep going, leading to the conversation being quite dull and repetitive. This is why so many people hate making small talk. They find it difficult to keep the conversation going, and they often feel drained afterward, especially if you’re naturally shy or introverted.

But there are also a few other reasons why small talk is so hard for us nowadays:

  1. We are increasingly disconnected from the people around us. We live in a world where we can communicate with anyone, anytime, without ever having to leave our homes. This means that we don’t have as many opportunities to practice our social skills.
  2. We are under more pressure to be exciting and engaging all the time. With social media, we are constantly bombarded with images of people who seem to be living perfect lives. This can make us feel like we have to be witty and charming all the time, which is exhausting.
  3. We are more anxious than ever before. The never-ending flood of news and information makes us feel like we need to be always on our toes. This can make it difficult to relax and be ourselves when around other people.

Fortunately, you can do a few things to make small talk easier. It starts with accepting that it’s okay to feel awkward and uncomfortable at times. This means being okay with silence and not feeling the need to fill every single moment with conversation. Be patient with yourself. Fluent small talk takes time, and it takes practice – and hey, remember that everyone struggles with small talk sometimes, so try not to worry too much about it.

The Dos and Don’ts for Small Talk

Small talk is the kind of conversation meant to be played safe and uncontroversial. It doesn’t necessarily have to be shallow or unimportant but should be viewed as a potential starting point for deeper conversations. One way is to ask open-ended questions that encourage the other person to talk more. You can also try talking about topics that you’re both interested in. Ask open-ended questions that encourage the other person to talk more. You can also try talking about topics that you’re both interested in since small talk is meant to build rapport and develop relationships. 

There are lots of situations where small talk is appropriate, such as: 

  • When you meet someone for the first time 
  • When you’re at a party or social event 
  • When you’re waiting in line or sitting in a waiting room 
  • When you’re in an elevator 
  • When you’re networking
  • When you have a lunch break at work (can be combined with networking)

Best and Safe Topics for Small Talk Include:

  • The weather 
  • Sports 
  • Books, movies, or art in general
  • Local news 
  • Food 
  • Hobbies 
  • Travel 
  • Pets 
  • Work (without complaining)

Topics To Avoid When Making Small Talk Include: 

  • Politics 
  • Religion 
  • Sex 
  • Finances
  • Death
  • Appearance
  • Personal gossip
  • Offensive jokes
  • Narrow topics
  • Past relationships
  • Health

Making small talk can be challenging for some people, but it doesn’t have to be! By finding common interests and starting with lighthearted subjects, you can make easy-going conversations with anyone, anywhere. Just remember to be yourself, relax, and go with the flow.

There are also times when small talk is inappropriate or even unwanted. For example, you sense that the person you’re talking to is not interested in making small talk. In that case, it’s best to respect their wishes and move on to another topic or, well, just stop talking. By being mindful of these social norms, you can ensure that your small talk is both enjoyable and appropriate.

Similarities to Other Forms of Communication and Discourse

Besides “small talk,” people might’ve also heard the terms “chit-chat” and “banter.” While “small talk” and “chit-chat” can basically be used interchangeably, “banter” takes on a slightly different meaning.

“Small talk” and “chit-chat” are, as described thoroughly above, casual conversations that take place in social settings such as while waiting in line at the grocery store, catching up with a colleague at work, or getting to know new neighbors. Although these types of conversations can seem meaningless on the surface, they often serve an important function by helping people feel more connected and less socially isolated. 

Banter is defined as lighthearted, back-and-forth conversations that involve small talk and witty humor. Traditionally, banter occurs between two or more individuals who are familiar with one another and have a sense of familiarity or rapport. Although banter can often be misconstrued as mean-spirited or mischievous, it is fundamentally meant to be good-natured and entertaining. To engage in good banter, you must be able to think on your feet, respond quickly and confidently to others’ comments, and show a good understanding of social etiquette and common courtesy. Whether engaging in small talk, chit-chat, or banter, it is crucial to recognize that these types of interactions serve an essential role within our society.