Why Small Talk Matters

How does small talk serve a bigger agenda?
dog sniffing another dog

Why do dogs sniff each other’s butts? According to the American Chemical Society, they are making small talk. By whiffing at glands near each other’s rear ends, canines are inhaling information – uncovering clues about the other dog’s emotional state and reproductive status. In other words, they are having a dog’s “handshake”.

While small talk among humans is less invasive, it still gets a bad name. At best, it’s a need to dodge an uncomfortable silence. At worst, it’s a waste of time and trivial chatter. Given a choice, we would rather dive straight into what’s important, right?

But what small talk symbolises matters more than the content. Professor Ingrid Piller from the Macquarie University Linguistics department says a vital role of small talk is how it nurtures relationships. Small talk establishes rapport by building mutual understanding, even if it starts with mundane topics such as the weather.

The banal exchange of pleasantries is also part of having a well-developed persona, which clinical psychologist Jordan Bernt Peterson defines as “the face we show to our social world”. When networking with strangers, small talk highlights your social and emotional intelligence. Others perceive you to be more well-disposed when you listen earnestly and can carefully widen a conversation. This can persuade others that it is reasonable to go beyond trading niceties with you.

One way to go beyond small talk is to suss out a common interest that only you and the other person are likely to share. Do this by asking more probing questions. Instead of the generic “What do you do?”, ask if they have worked on anything exciting lately, what they are passionate about or why they chose their profession. You will be surprised by what you can learn from someone’s choice of role models.

Amplify this by asking meaningful follow-up questions and being an active listener. If you don’t know how to start, one strategy is to clarify what someone is thinking. What did they mean? Why did they say that? If there isn’t a natural follow-up question, say “tell me more” or “that sounds interesting” to encourage people to open up further.

This way, you can unearth more profound common interests and experiences that lead to a richer networking experience.

For more examples on questions you can ask, go to: bit.ly/acesmalltalk

    Mar 28, 2019
    Wong Wing Lum
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