August 14, 2023

The big benefits of small talk

In one of my favorite scenes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, our antihero Larry David ends up seated in the nosebleeds of a dinner party, way down on the other side of the table from his wife and close friends, as the hosts decide to mix things up by shuffling the seating chart. Seated across from a guy he doesn’t really know, Larry is bored and annoyed by his new neighbors.

In typical Larry David fashion, he asks, “So, how’s your marriage?” After his conversation partner reacts surprised, Larry continues, “I’m trying to elevate small talk to medium talk.”

Lots of people share Larry’s distaste for small talk. But many of them also don’t realize that Larry David isn’t the best model for social behavior.

It’s a popular gripe. People see small talk as a waste of time and breath, some see it as a source of anxiety, and others see themselves as better than it. In an (unscientific) survey done by Preply, 71% of Americans said they prefer silence to small talk. In some ways, I get it – nobody wants to be trapped in a situation they don’t enjoy.

But ultimately, I fall firmly in favor of small talk, and so should you. It just might make you more successful, more understanding (and understood), and more happy.

Small talk is a social lubricant

There’s an evergreen, recurring trend of advice articles and TikToks recommending questions to ask instead of the small talk staples of weather and sports. Here’s a sampling:

  • What has been your biggest challenge this week?
  • Who’s someone you really admire?
  • If you were the ideal best friend for yourself, what kind of qualities would you have?

Oh god. Could you imagine riding the elevator with a new coworker and being peppered with these questions? These might be fine, or even fun, around a bottle of wine with friends, but if you think they are appropriate in place of light and breezy chatter, you fundamentally misunderstand how people work.

Small talk is a social lubricant, like that bottle of wine, that makes our interactions with other people go smoothly. It helps build those first vital strings of connection from which a stronger and everlasting bridge can then be built. Talking about vacation plans or the latest Netflix binge provides a window into how people see the world, and that how can often tell you far more about what they’re actually like than asking about their earliest memory.

We don’t want to live in a constant job interview or therapy session. Small talk allows us to gently skim across the surface of our social world, diving in when and where it’s necessary.

Small talk makes you happier

The little bits and bites of conversation we accumulate throughout our waking hours are the delightful garnishes that make for our best days. It’s part of the reason I love living in a busy city – exchanging good mornings at the coffee shop, or catching up with an acquaintance you run into on the way to the subway makes you feel a part of something.

Speaking of the subway, when researchers at the University of Chicago wanted to investigate connection, that’s where they looked. There’s a certain decorum on public transit: you ignore other people. That default works well to maintain a pleasant (or at least tolerable) commute, but it actually leaves a lot of happiness on the table.

Researchers instructed participants riding the train to either strike up a conversation with a stranger or avoid one entirely. The results: riders who connected with a fellow passenger reported enjoying a happier and more pleasant commute. Those who were told to remain isolated, they felt worse. These results are precisely the opposite of what a survey of riders predicted – when read this scenario, people thought they would be happier with solitude and less happy with conversation.

I’m not saying we should all be chatting it up on our commutes, but the science shows that we shouldn’t be so reflexively against it either.

A little goes a long way

Even as an advocate of small talk, I understand that there’s a limit. At a certain point, it’s time to wrap things up and move on (or go deeper). Luckily, there’s evidence to support that even just a little bit can make a big difference.

It turns out that just a few minutes of small talk can be enough to reveal our personalities to each other. In a 2022 paper, Neha Bose and Daniel Sgroi of the University of Warwick outlined a series of experiments involving strangers, personality tests, and games that showed a little bit of chit-chat resulted in a significant increase in interpersonal understanding.

In their study, these researchers had subjects take both a personality test and a cognitive ability test, then randomly broke them into two groups. In the experimental group, the subjects were paired off and given four minutes to make small talk before being asked to assess their partner. In the control, they had a placebo task and then the same assessment. Given just those few minutes of connection, the chatty pairs were significantly better at reading their partners. More impressively, when these pairs were tasked with a communal money-sharing game, the small talkers were 30% more generous with their partners than the other strangers were.

Aristotle wrote that “man is by nature a social animal,” and modern science has shown that our brains are uniquely adapted to living in large groups. It’s no surprise that we’re gifted at quickly and effectively picking up cues from others – and small talk is often our best opportunity to give and receive these cues.

Small talk is almost a prequel to the best advice that I ever got about making friends: act like they are already your friend. Lean over and make a joke. Compliment somebody’s outfit, dog, or lawn. These little moments add up to something bigger.

Nearly three centuries ago, British statesman Lord Chesterfield is credited with first using the term “small talk” in a letter to his son. He wrote, “There is a sort of chit-chat, or small talk, which is the general run of conversation at courts, and in most mixed companies.” Even then, at the coining of the term, Chesterfield knew of its importance, telling his son, “It is a sort of middling conversation, neither silly nor edifying; but, however, very necessary for you to become master of.

So, how about them' Yankees? (Answer: they're terrible this year.)

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

Read Next

Got it. You're on the list. 🍻
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Ben Guttmann
Copyright Ben Guttmann
Privacy Policy