Full honesty here – I might have posted about small talk in the past. I legitimately do not remember, and I just don’t really feel like digging through all my old posts to see if I did. It was a long time ago, and I wrote a whole lot of posts. In any case, my thoughts on small talk have evolved in the past few years, though my overall opinion remains the same.
Just to get straight to the point here: SMALL TALK IS GOOD.
Ok, now for more blather. Small talk gets a lot of hate. Being autistic and introverted and socially anxious, I tend to be in circles that really dislike small talk. People will say it’s pointless or meaningless, I regularly see things about people throwing “no small talk” parties, there’s that “find the others” quotation by Timothy Leary that I honestly find a little unsettling, people are making declarations that they are done with small talk forever – the point I’m getting at here is the consensus seems to be that small talk is attempting to fill a void that isn’t actually there* instead of serving an actual function.
Here’s the thing, though. Small talk DOES serve a function. Now, I’m not going to try to say it never gets overused because I don’t actually know if it gets overused or not. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but even if it is overused, that doesn’t mean that small talk itself is the problem. Small talk is necessary.
Let’s start with the “hi, how are you” ritual that I KNOW I’ve talked about at some point in the past. Is the cashier at the grocery store genuinely interested in how I am when they say “hi, how are you?” No, no they are not. Luckily for all of us, that’s not the point of the ritual! And yes, I am calling it a ritual because I genuinely see it as a ritualized greeting in our society. (and by “our” I mean that I live on the east coast of the US so this is my normal) (I’ve lived in several other regions of the US as well and the “hi how are you” ritual has always been a thing, but it might not be a thing in other countries, I don’t know) (ok, back to the point) ANYWAY. So this is about how the “hi, how are you” script goes:
Person 1: Hi, how are you?
Person 2: Oh, I’m fine, how are you?
Person 1: I am also fine, thank you.
Aaaaaaand that’s about it. Here is what’s actually being said, though:
Person 1: Hi, I acknowledge you as a person.
Person 2: Thank you! I acknowledge you as a person as well.
Person 1: Thank you! We are both people!
You may notice that this ritual is almost entirely done between people who are strangers or are otherwise poorly connected. If I say “hi, how are you” to a close friend, I genuinely want to know how they are. If I say it to a cashier, it’s because I’m using a social ritual to make it easier for us to interact for that minute or so that we need to talk to each other.
Beyond the aspect of social rituals, small talk serves another vital purpose – finding similarities, and through similarities, connection. There’s a reason small talk almost always starts with the weather – it’s because as a rule, we can all AGREE on the weather. It’s a common starting point where people who know absolutely nothing about each other and might be wildly different can agree on something. Even if, say, one person loves rain and the other person hates rain, we can all agree that it IS raining, and possibly that the rain is inconvenient, and that wow, it’s so wet out there. We can all agree on that regardless of political beliefs, religious beliefs, whatever else.
When it’s a brief interaction, that’s generally all there is. A tiny, short connection with a person we had a tiny, brief time with. And that’s fine. At other times, though, this can continue. Maybe we’re talking to a new person at a social event. We have acknowledged each other as people (“Hi, how are you?”), we established that we can at least agree on one thing (there is weather outside!), now we gradually move into other topics.
Generally this is done step by step. One topic at a time, we can approach territory we’re less likely to agree on. One topic at a time, we find what we have in common. It let’s me find the Star Trek people who I can talk trek with, and the crafting people I can talk crafts with, and whatever other people I have things in common with, WITHOUT just starting a discussion about the moral implications of some specific Star Trek episode with everyone around me regardless of whether they’re interested in it or not. That is considered rude, particularly because we have established social rituals that exist to help us find other people who are like us. You know, like small talk.
I have spent years now injecting tiny bits of small talk into my micro-interactions, and the results have always been incredibly positive. Maybe I’ll compliment the cashier’s nails, or comment on how I walked to wherever I am in the rain and now I’m wet, or whatever. Something that’s pretty meaningless in the big picture, but as it turns out is incredibly meaningful in the small picture of day-to-day interactions with people.
As I type this I am made very aware of the fact that my skills here are going to be rusty because, well, I haven’t really gone anywhere other than the grocery store and doctor’s offices in a year. My social skills are getting way less practice than they used too.
ANYWAY. In conclusion – please stop hating on small talk. Sure it can be annoying sometimes, but to be real – when I started realizing what it’s for I found myself significantly less annoyed by it. I already struggle to connect with people. Why in the world would I reject a tool that specifically exists to help us all connect with each other?
No reason I can see.
* Oh no, now part of my brain is off thinking about how voids are literally defined by the absence of stuff, so can a void ever really be said to “exist” in a meaningful way and wow my brain just goes off in its own direction sometimes.