You’re Bad at Small Talk Because You Don’t Know What It’s For

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Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

One of the things that’s always been confusing about working in journalism is that while journalists are professional communicators — interviewing smart people, reading smart research, writing about all that in smart way — they are also often brazenly awkward in everyday conversation. While I’m almost certainly projecting, I find it funny that, if you throw existential or political questions to reporters, they’ll be happier than pigs in manure, but if you force them to make conversation, they’ll be staring into their phones long before they get to the oh-so-satisfying philosophical debates. That’s because, sociolinguists will say, small talk and big talk are two related, but very different, things.

And that’s because human speech is a many-splendored thing. Like David Roberts lays out at Vox, anything you say is going to have a mixture of “semantic content,” or the various meanings of things and the relationships between them, and “social function,” or the act of finding of commonalities, the sussing out of roles, the establishing of dynamics. Different speech acts lie on different ends of the continuum. When your English professor was mortifying you by unpacking the symbolism of The Death of Ivan Ilych or your friendly human resources coordinator was detailing your dental plan, those were purely communicative — it’s all about about conveying factual information from one human to another. On the other end is chitchat, like how you talk about how insane the weather is with your colleagues or how you ask a fellow party guest about how they know the host — you’re looking for ways in which you belong to the same tribe. With small talk, “the communication of ideas or information is secondary, almost incidental; the speech is mainly meant to serve the purpose of social bonding,” Roberts writes. “It asks and answers familiar questions, dwells of topics of reliable comity, and stresses fellow feeling rather than sources of disagreement.” Increment by increment, you’re getting to know each other. This is also possibly why lecturing someone at a party is such a foul: Rather than relating, it’s communicating your expertise, which works great in front of a PowerPoint but not over a punch bowl. If you’re lecturing someone you barely know, you’re not only condescending to them, you’re also skipping over the commonality-finding that helps to bond people together.

As you may intuit, there’s a gender component in the way Western culture talks about small talk, namely that it’s trivial, shallow, meaningless — and it also happens to be thought typical of women. In a 1923 essay — thought to be the first on the topic — Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski wrote about how being in silence with “another man” was unbearable, he reasoned, so talking about the weather was a way to fill it. He observed that the ritual of small talk “serves to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship and does not serve the purpose of communicating ideas.” (And Ideas, you guessed it, are the Most Important Thing.) The feminist critique, which came in the 1970s, was that the dismissal of relationship-oriented conversation sprang from “patriarchal disrespect for traditionally female roles,” Roberts writes. Indeed, there seems to be agreed-upon continuum of worthiness for conversation. He quotes Cardiff linguist Justine Coupland, who writes that “western societies have whole-heartedly accepted that communication is in fact value-gradable, on a scale from most-to-least authentic, or most-to-least valid.” The real talk “gets stuff done,” she says, and that “stuff” excludes anything “relational.”

But as all the research on social bonds suggest, having robust relationships makes you happier, safeguards your health, and predicts professional success — so the relational effort of “small” talk isn’t that small at all. The woke perspective, then, would be to appreciate the relational and informational aspects of communication. Indeed, in an intriguing 2010 study, researchers attached little recorder devices to 79 undergraduates and found that the people who reported the highest subjective well-being both spent more time with people and had deeper conversations with them. But one does not simply dive into conversational depths immediately; you have to, as they say, “make friends” first.

It’s oddly parallel to what a sex researcher told me about getting better in bed: Don’t tell your date that you love being choked the first time you hook up; allow for things to be a little conventional. Then grade up from there. So the next time you’re trapped at a party, rejoice in your mutual frustrations or schadenfreude with the L shutting down. Contemplate what Kevin Durant will do to the Golden State Warriors’ offense. Swap tips about surviving the summer. Like they said in kindergarten, it’s good to share.