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Here's the science behind why small talk is so awkward – and so essential

How about this weather?

DAVID NIELD
27 JUL 2016
 

Research has found that the small talk we exchange in during certain social situations could fulfil an important role beyond the content of the words themselves - which, let's be honest, often don't mean much of anything.

Think about this. When you ask an aquaintence, "How's it going?", you're not really going to find out anything of note (unless they're a chronic over-sharer) but what you are doing is confirming a friendship and familiarity with that person.

 

The interactions we have with one another when we engage in small talk are ritualistic in nature, David Roberts explains over at Vox, and "It weaves and reweaves the social fabric, enacting and reinforcing social roles and the activity," whether we're talking to the neighbour, our postman, a distant cousin, or a new friend.

Almost 100 years ago, anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski spotted this link between small talk and social bonding in his 1923 essay, "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages", saying that small talk involves:

"Purposeless expressions of preference or aversions, accounts of irrelevant happenings, [and] comments on what is perfectly obvious."

Yep, that pretty much still sounds like small talk to us, even though the description goes all the way back to 1923. A lot of the time, Malinowski said, idle chit-chat is used just to fill the silence rather than to actually say anything important.

Fast-forward to the modern study of sociolinguistics, and today's researchers talk about both what is said (the core information) and what it does (e.g. entertain or encourage). Small talk is usually all about the second part of that equation.

If you tell someone you're, "Pretty good!" when they ask how you are, you're not giving them a great deal of information, but you're reaffirming a social link, and being positive and upbeat at the same time.

 

A 2014 experiment carried out on the Chicago train network found that small talk actually makes us happier, based on the group of 50 volunteers involved in the test. Those that were asked to chat to strangers reported a more enjoyable ride than those who kept to themselves.

That backs up the findings of a 2013 study that linked more small talk – and more talk in general – to a brighter mood, though it's also possible that those with a sunnier disposition are just more inclined to talk to begin with.

We're all wired differently, though, and some people hate to talk about inconsequential topics (like the weather), while others hate to talk about serious stuff (like politics). Some people feel uncomfortable making small talk, but others thrive on it.

"To 'talk well' in the social sense, to be adept at sending the correct social signals, is a different skill than 'talking well' in the communicative sense," explains Roberts at Vox. "And the two skills do not always go together. Everyone knows someone extremely verbal and eloquent but socially inept, or someone intuitively at ease in almost every social situation but inarticulate beyond that."

The good news is you can get better at small talk with practice, according to 'shyness expert' Bernardo Carducci from Indiana University. Carducci recommends starting on small and insignificant topics first, and aiming to be nice, rather than brilliant, in your interactions.

So if you don't enjoy small talk, don't despair. There's hope for you yet!

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