Small talk exists in nearly every language. In Japan, it comes in the form of short grunts and nods called “aizuchi.” In Persian culture, they’re “taarof.” In his 1923 essay,
The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Language, Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski coined the term “phatic communion” to describe small talk as “language used more for the purpose of establishing an atmosphere or maintaining social contact than for exchanging information or ideas.” Whatever you call it, small talk plays a role in most cultures. And for most people, it either comes naturally or it doesn’t. In fact, many of us hate it, particularly in a career context.
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People who dislike small talk often ask, “What’s the point?” Why devote an evening to forced, meaningless chatter about the latest cocktail recipe Nancy-from-accounting mastered in her new mixology course when you could be having dinner with your boyfriend, or even just getting actual work done?
If you fall into the camp of small-talk dissenters, you’re not alone. Being someone who has a visceral reaction to the words “networking event” because of an instinctive aversion to small talk could be as much a testament to honesty as a sign that you’re a social loser. After all, life is short; given the potential power and impact of language, why use it as a proprietary tool for obvious or meaningless conversation — an exchange of empty pleasantries or a discussion of the weather that serve merely as filler to break Malinowski’s "alarming and dangerous" silence — when you could instead be using it for something valuable, like getting closer to the meaning of life, or explaining how to use the TV remote control?
The Purpose of Small Talk
But as useless as small talk might seem, it does serve a function. University of Oxford Professor of Language and Communication Jean Aitchison references “grooming talking,” comparing “the meaningless small talk of everyday life” to “the friendly grooming indulged by primates.” In short, it’s a social activity that makes us feel connected.
Think of small talk is the professional equivalent of hosting a dinner party. Your job is to make people comfortable and keep the conversation flowing so that everyone has a good time. One of the easiest ways to make this happen is to put on a smile and keep the questions coming: “Where are you from?” or, “You’re a nuclear physicist? That’s so interesting. How do you usually find your clients?” The reason this approach works is because people like to talk about themselves, particularly when given the opportunity to feel like an authority.
Engage in Big Talk
Bottom line: small talk probably isn’t going anywhere. You can choose to throw it out the window and jump right into the linguistic ocean with thoughtful questions and big ideas and see what — and who — floats to the surface. Someone who responds well to directness instead of pleasantries might be more likeminded and thus someone you’d rather connect with anyway, professionally or otherwise.
You could also choose to resign yourself to “phatic communion,” but only after rethinking its function. “What do you do for work?” or “How was your mother’s visit?” can become valuable if you shift your perspective on the act of small talk to see its potential, and utilize it not according to what it is but rather what it could lead to: namely, as a ritualistic act that creates a social bond between you and another person, and sets the stage for a connection that makes big talk possible.
It’s like Malinowski explained: small talk can be used “to establish bonds of personal union.” Or, as author Debra Fine puts it in her book, The Fine Art of Small Talk, “Small talk is the appetizer for any relationship.” Talking about nothing at a work or social function instead of binge-watching House of Cards isn’t necessarily going to be fun, but it might be more bearable if you keep in mind that talking about nothing can end up leading to something.
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