Something that introverts often bond over is a dislike of small talk: the chit-chat that people make with acquaintances, or to keep the atmosphere light and casual. We hate it because it seems artificial and shallow. It doesn’t get to the nitty-gritty of life or the heart and soul of a person. It’s boring (how much can you say about the weather, anyway?). It’s only useful for filling a perfectly good silence.
For various reasons, I’ve been thinking about small talk a lot lately, and I’m reconsidering my totally anti-small-talk stance. Now, I can’t say I’m a fan of small talk, but I have to admit that there are times when it comes in handy.
Small talk is a social lubricant. Much like alcohol, small talk can make it easier to interact with other people. Even the most profound, abstract-thinking introverts find it weird when someone gets all TMI on us. Sure, your tragic family backstory is more interesting than local road construction, but if you start telling me about it 10 seconds after meeting me, I will find it strange and awkward and look for an excuse to get away from you. (Likewise, if we’ve known each other for ten years and haven’t moved past small talk, that is also strange and awkward.)
Think of it as the conversational equivalent of “buying dinner first.”
On a related note, small talk can acknowledge the humanity of the other person. As I’ve mentioned before, I often wish people would just get to the point already. You don’t have to pretend that you baked me a cake and oh just happened to also have a complaint to make. You don’t have to inquire after the health of my entire family before you ask me for a favor.
But here’s the thing I’ve learned: if you constantly approach me with nothing but complaints, favors, etc., it’s demeaning. This often happens at work, where people rarely speak to me except to point out a mistake I made or to make a request/demand. This makes me feel, well, used–and no one likes that. In such cases, a little bit of small talk, however superficial, can be a way of saying, “I recognize that you are a person and not just a copy-making pair of hands.”
Surprisingly, you can learn a lot about someone by the way they handle small talk–either by what they say, or how. Years ago, I was having lunch with a couple and a guy they wanted to fix me up with. When asked about his job, his response was to heave a sigh and say, “Work sucks.” This left a solidly negative impression of him in my brain. Not that he should have pretended that his job was wonderful when it wasn’t, but if he actually cared about making an effort to interact with the cute girl sitting next to him, he could have put a little more personality into the conversation. It could have been the chance to talk about how work was a challenge to overcome, say what he intended to do about the situation, or at least tell an interesting story about what made it sucky. As it was, the conversation only limped along on very weak knees and left me with zero interest in seeing him again.
So there you have it: small talk does have its uses. And, like many other things, it’s all about when, where, and how you use it.
I’ve gotten a lot of comments on previous blog posts from fellow introverts who share my distaste for small talk. Let’s flip the discussion around–are there times where you’ve found small talk to be a benefit?
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