I never thought I’d say this, but I miss small talk. I miss those fifteen-second exchanges with strangers at the gym. I miss asking acquaintances about their significant others or dropping an “I like your shoes” to a woman in the elevator before hopping off.
In our pandemic world, casual conversation has been all but eliminated. The closest thing I get these days is saying “thank you” to a delivery person or greeting a grocery store clerk. Even then, I’m hesitant to linger—every unnecessary moment with a stranger feels taboo, every breath a hazard. And, now, in the absence of chit-chat, I feel isolated and unenergized. This has led to a potentially controversial revelation: small talk gets an unfairly bad rap.
Science backs me up on this. “Small talk functions as a crucial social ritual,” says Jessica Methot, a behavioural scientist at Rutgers University who studies social networks. “It’s a way to grease the wheels.” Methot has co-authored a number of papers that have found several benefits for small talk in work settings—work being one of the most common venues for chit-chat. In one study, she and her team found that, on days employees had more small talk with coworkers or supervisors, their mood improved, they had more energy, and there was a decrease in burnout.
There are a number of things at play here, but before we can go any further, it’s important to define what exactly small talk is. Methot says her study defined it as “lighthearted, superficial, polite, scripted conversation.” It’s “scripted” in the sense that it’s predictable: everyone knows the appropriate default phrases, so participants are rarely caught off guard. Someone might ask, “How are you?” so you respond, “I’m well,” or something of that ilk, before bouncing the question back to the asker. It’s rote, it’s a bit boring, but the data show it’s terribly important.
It’s no wonder that, more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, so many of us feel detached and disoriented. In the world of quarantine and remote work, one in which we’ve been robbed of opportunities to gather publicly, most conversation has been replaced by emails, texts, and an endless queue of scheduled calls. The pandemic has revealed how fleeting those transient interactions really are. And, as our circles shrink and isolation reigns, the absence of small talk may be harming us much more than we know.
Our professional and personal networks are collapsing. Marissa King and Balázs Kovács, writing in Harvard Business Review, report that, during the pandemic, our personal and professional circles have decreased by 16 percent. For men, it’s even worse—as much as 30 percent.
And it’s not just work small talk that we’re missing out on. Chatting with strangers out in public can also prove valuable—though it’s now increasingly rare. Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist at the University of Essex, conducted one study that found that, when people engaged more with a barista—smiling, making eye contact, conversing—they felt a greater sense of community belonging. In another, her data showed that, the more people mingled with acquaintances or strangers in a day, the better their mood and sense of connection. Sandstrom observed that, in a normal prepandemic day, people interacted with an average of eleven acquaintances; university students interacted with sixteen. But, now, talking with more than two or three people a day seems inconceivable.
The monotony of automated dialogue is a common reason people claim to dislike small talk. But Methot says this superficiality is what makes it unique. “It doesn’t require a lot of thought, it doesn’t require a lot of energy, and it doesn’t require a lot of self-disclosure,” she says. The fact that you can start chit-chatting on autopilot makes it easier to acknowledge those you don’t know very well, if at all, and be acknowledged in return. “That brief acknowledgement is really meaningful,” Methot says. “Not because it’s deep . . . but it makes you feel seen.”
Small talk is also an equalizer. Andrew Guydish, a PhD student of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found in his research that, without space for off-task communication, people in “directing” roles at work spoke much more than those in “following” roles. But, once they introduced opportunities for off-task chatter, followers started to make up for that dialogue imbalance. “The more folks were able to speak in a balanced way, the more they reported enjoyment on the task,” he explains. Today, in virtual workspaces devoid of small talk, Guydish says, “we’re literally just letting conversation imbalances go.”
The quality of conversations has also changed. Every dialogue feels transactional because, now, our conversations are based on our work roles, says Methot. And, without chit-chat, there’s no relief. Small talk, it seems, is reenergizing: a palate-cleansing moment of respite when you can prime yourself for whatever’s next.
Of course, there are ways to inject some semblance of chatter into a digital work meeting, like setting aside the first ten minutes for “off-task communication,” as Guydish calls it. But anyone who’s tried knows that it doesn’t feel quite the same as normal premeeting gab. Small talk should be spontaneous and nonpurposeful, Guydish says, and it’s that spontaneity that is so difficult to replicate virtually. When we schedule time for chit-chat, he says, we turn it into yet another item on the to-do list, thereby defeating the purpose. Factor in bad connectivity or lag times and chatter hardly flows easy.
So how do you facilitate serendipitous conversation when many of us are working from home? Methot is trying to investigate, but there’s no easy answer. It’s ironic, she says, that something we normally do so thoughtlessly is so hard a phenomenon to replicate. But, if you can’t duplicate spontaneous encounters, like standing around a water cooler or bumping into an acquaintance on the street, Methot says the next best thing is creating an intentional one. This can be through setting up virtual lounges that allow users to pop in and say hi or even reaching out to a loose acquaintance or colleague: it may feel a bit awkward, but shooting someone an email or text to check in is meaningful. Plus, it will feel spontaneous—to them, at least.
“I guess the question is, Is losing the spontaneity better or worse than losing the interaction altogether?” asks Beth Schinoff, an organizational-behaviour researcher at Boston College. Scheduling personal chats can feel contrived and inauthentic, but otherwise, she says, they may not happen.
In addition to the number of connections lost, Sandstrom says it’s also important to consider the diversity of those missing connections. In a pandemic, of course you’ll make more of an effort to stay connected with your closest friends and family—but, as Sandstrom points out, those are also the people you’re likely most familiar with. Small talk with acquaintances and strangers is an “important source of novelty” that adds unpredictability and variety to the everyday and gives all parties an opportunity to find commonality on neutral ground. Without small talk, we are boring ourselves at best. At worst, we’re homogenizing our exposure to different thoughts and world views.
Some people are turning to social media to get their fix of interactions with strangers. A November paper published in the journal Human Arenas commented on the boost in parasocial relationships—one-sided connections or personal obsessions, like between a fan and a celebrity. The authors say that “parasocial interactions through digital media allowed us to have a sense of togetherness during the quarantine.” The Daily Beast reported that visits to Chatroulette, a website that randomly connects strangers via webcam, more than doubled between the beginning of 2020 and last April.
Small talk with strangers online can also offer a low-stakes opportunity to be vulnerable. One study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that people prefer to disclose embarrassing and personal details to a stranger than to a close friend. In the same way a stand-up comedian can be freer to try out new bits at small open mikes rather than experimenting in the middle of a Netflix special, people can test others’ reactions to news without it feeling quite so scary. Chatting with strangers, even briefly, can be a liberating act of calibration.
An inability to chit-chat means an inability to connect—the detriments of no small talk are really the detriments of isolation. “There is a lot out there that suggests that people aren’t only lonelier but they also feel less respected by their colleagues and they feel kind of forgotten,” says Schinoff. Methot adds that “these feelings of social exclusion can actually make us age faster” and that “not being acknowledged at work creates a sense of workplace loneliness that can actually be detrimental to our health.”
To Sandstrom, initiating small talk is a prosocial act—something done for the good of all involved. People enjoy it more than they predict: they feel more anchored, trusting, and even more optimistic about the general population after having interactions with strangers. Whether this applies vice versa—if having fewer interactions with strangers results in a less trusting and more pessimistic population—remains to be studied. “I don’t have data,” Sandstrom says. “But I think that’s the worry, right?”
Sandstrom still talks to strangers all the time: she’ll engage people on walks or at the store, all from a safe distance of course. “The opportunities are fewer, and I think we might not be taking them when they do present themselves,” she says.
Part of me worries that, by the time everyone is vaccinated, I’ll reenter the world clumsy and stilted. Is small talk a skill that can be lost, a muscle that atrophies into nothingness when left idle for too long? Sandstrom is unconvinced. Chit-chat will never disappear, she says, because we’ll never be able to help running into people, not completely. Sooner or later, we’ll emerge from our homes and rediscover the joys of awkward greetings and drawn-out silences. We’ll learn to connect again, clumsy as we may be.