Small Talk’s Use
Quite often online, whether on twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or even Tinder, I see comments to the tune of: “I hate small talk, real conversations only”. I like meaningful conversations as much as the next guy, but don’t neglect the benefit of small talk. It is an important social instrument we use to gauge others, especially those we have just met. Back in high school, I probably would have been keen to agree with this kind of statement. However, through college and especially my experience abroad, I learned to appreciate small talk. Had I gone through these experiences avoiding small talk, they would not have changed me as much as they did. Before college, I was a shy, timid, bumbling lanky, kid. Through college, I gained some much-needed confidence and experience. Through my solo travel experiences abroad, this trend continued and I became more and more comfortable in my own skin during social situations. If I had avoided reaching out to the people around me, this would not be the case. Mark it as another point for the “practice makes perfect” team, or in German: “Übung macht den Meister” (literally: practice makes the master).
From what I can tell, my story is not at all exceptional. Many people go through radical changes in their outward personality through college and especially through solo travel experiences. So then, what makes small talk an important “social instrument”? What kind of role does it play in these changes? I would argue that small talk plays two important parts in social interaction. As a socially acceptable, passive filter to discern people we are or not compatible with, and as an enabler of further more “meaningful” interaction.
As a filter
Engaging in small talk is likely the first interaction we will have with people we meet. Everybody from the secretary at your first job interview, to that cute person you bump into at your local pub, is going to form a first impression of you. First impressions are based on your appearance (get over it, it’s true) and the way you act. Because some banal conversation about the weather or a more situationally relevant topic likely ensues, they way you navigate it has a pretty big effect on that first impression. That’s you making small talk. Using this first impression, we tend to place people into certain categories in our minds by how much we “liked” them or enjoyed their company. It’s a sort of compatibility filter, or, at least, a perceived compatibility filter, because first impressions aren’t always right. I’m not talking about dating or even friendship-level compatibility, just simply if you get along on a basic level.
As an enabler
If your little chat with that person you just accidentally bumped into at the bar seems to go well, maybe you could then talk for a little bit longer. This first little chat, beyond a couple words in passing, can be a springboard for a more meaningful conversation. Many people bad-mouth small talk because of its broad, generic, or even repetitive nature. What they might not realize, is that because of this, small talk leads to more specific topics of interest to both of you, and a more memorable time. A comparison I just thought of and is probably imperfect would be: small talk supports more specific and memorable conversations like the trunk of a tree supports its smaller branches and their leaves. Without the trunk, the leaves, representing the smaller more specific and productive conversations, wouldn’t see the light of day.
The importance of small talk is really prevalent while traveling alone. In fact, without it, solo travel would be quite boring. However, I have found that traveling alone seems to force you to strike up conversations with the people around you. This is a good thing (link to another post of mine). Please feel free to poke holes in my analogy above. However, please don’t ignore small talk – recognize its value! It isn’t the most important part of our lives or our social lives, but it is definitely an important part of them, with a definite impact.