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The Big News About Small Talk

A client was complaining to me about how he hated going to his company’s social events. He felt that nothing substantive was ever discussed, work was pressing, and his time seemed wasted on discussions that centered on sports, leisure activities, or personal matters. This client was like many people who do not understand the enormous value of small talk. This may have something to do with the label. But small talk is anything but. This type of conversation is a rite that we all must pass through to get to the other, “big talk.”

Small talk provides a number of benefits:

  • It allows people to feel each other out, with little risk
  • It provides opportunities to find common ground.
  • It establishes comfort zones.
  • It facilitates the move into “big talk.”

Deborah Tannen, who writes and speaks extensively about small talk, says

Many moments are spent in casual chat that establishes the friendly working environment that is the necessary backdrop to getting work done. It is easier to approach someone with a work-related issue if you are comfortable in each other’s presence and the lines of communication are open. A major way such working relationships are established is through informal, nonwork talk.*

For those of you who claim to “have no time” for small talk, know that that this attitude can be very off-putting. It conveys a level of self-importance that is discouraging and demoralizing.

But such people may just be taking a defensive posture. They may simply not know what to talk about. In that case, a good place to get subject matter is the newspaper and I mean a good, world newspaper. Such papers are filled with interesting information that is not limited to politics and government. They’re all available online, too, so there’s no excuse.

When we acknowledge how much we learn through small talk, how it helps foster the connection business thrives on, we can begin to imagine how cold and impersonal a workplace or social life would be if there weren’t any.

*Tannen, Deborah, Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work; Harper Paperbacks 1995

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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