The importance of small talk

The importance of small talk

October 12, 2020 0 By Rick

Now that working from home appears to be part of the “new norm” in our business lives, it might be valuable to look at some of the things we miss out on by remote working. Of course, there are some clear benefits that we’re all familiar with, such as less or no commuting hassles, relaxed dress, and more time with the family. But what about other factors, such as face-to-face in-person social interaction with our colleagues? What happens when our social encounters are limited to Zoom and Skype meetings? What happens to small talk? Obviously, some small talk continues to take place, but it doesn’t play out the same way as it does in person.

Surprising benefits
The Rutgers University HR department looked at what happens when we no longer conduct the office small talk that many complain about and find distracting. What they found may surprise you. According to the study’s findings, all parties – employees and employers alike – benefit from these minor interactions. It seems that talking to your colleagues has a holistic effect that improves collaboration, increases output quality, boosts productivity and builds better team cultures based around trust and communication. Other benefits of office chitchat seemed to promote positive social emotions, better behavior and enhanced wellbeing. And these factors, in turn, made employees want to put in that extra effort for the company.

Small talk with strangers
It’s happened to all of us: in an elevator, a waiting room or in line at the bank surrounded by people who are, like us, are struggling with the uncomfortable silence. The silence is deafening in Swedish elevators, no matter how many people are in one. Nobody wants to start talking because it feels strange and awkward. But if we don’t make an effort, we miss out on a valuable social ritual that yields excellent professional and personal benefits. Some cultures find small talk more difficult than others. The importance of conducting small talk- especially when doing business with English-speaking cultures – was one of the most challenging concepts to explain to my business students at the Stockholm School of Economics in the 1980s. Hopefully, that’s changed by now. So how important is it? Well, let’s just say that it “greases the casual conversation wheel” that leads to establishing good relationships, whether personal or professional. 

Small talk is the warm-up
“Every great romance and each big business deal begins with small talk,” according to Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. Carducci believes nurturing this sense of community starts with small talk. “Small talk is the cornerstone of civility,” he says. “When you connect with people through conversation, you’re much less likely to mistreat them or be mistreated by them. One of the biggest predict­ors of career success is verbal fluency,” says Carducci. “Small talk should be viewed as the warm-up that conveys key information about you, like goodwill, trustworthiness and a willingness to co-operate.” Debra Fine, the author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, says: “You can negotiate a contract, make a presentation, sell a widget or promote your services, but unless you integrate small talk, you will not develop a business friendship. All things being equal, people do business with their friends.” It’s these small things that help seal the deal! But wait! There’s more. Recent studies point to the surprising cognitive benefits of engaging in even a small amount of workplace socializing.

Cognitive benefits
Researchers at the University of Michigan researchers recently conducted a study about small talk. Participants were asked to spend 10 minutes getting to know the other participants. Once they had completed that task, they were asked to complete a series of cognitive tasks. A second group engaged in competition-based talk and then completed the same tasks, while a third control group just took the cognitive test with no conversation involved. Researchers found that the group that conducted friendly small talk first did much better on the cognitive tests than the other two groups. The part of the brain that controls such essential skills as focus, prioritization and organization – the executive functioning area – improved measurably. Encouraging small talk and other forms of socializing have been shown to make the workplace more friendly without decreasing productivity. Moreover, friendly small talk and conversation help with focus and work performance. So, the next time you’re tempted to dismiss small talk as trivial, think again!