Why You Should Embrace Awkward Small Talk

Do you think small talk is a time waster?  Would you rather send a text than have an in-person conversation? Do you go out of your way to avoid small talk? If you said yes to any of these, Lisa B. Marshall, aka The Public Speaker, will show you how to look forward to mundane small talk.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #308

My late husband's mom (our family calls her Grandma Vincenza) communicates with me regularly. For the most part, our conversations start out pretty much the same: How are you? How are the girls and Armando? How's the weather? How's the traffic? (She lives in an area of Florida that gets very busy in the winter months.) Sounds boring and awkward, right? The reality is our conversations are the exact opposite! I love talking with her. Our conversations are interesting, engaging, and quite enjoyable!

When I was in my 20s, I was quite uncomfortable with small talk. I couldn't understand why I should talk about the weather and other equally mundane topics when it seemed to make absolutely no difference. I didn't understand the purpose. I used to think, "How phoney can you be?"  I used to refer to it as "plastic talk."  In fact, I used to imagine a plastic New Orleans type mask and a permanent forced smile—a symbol of the epitome of inauthentic conversation.  Those types of words had no meaning.  And I was right—that is, to some extent.  Yes, the words were not meaningful, however, what I didn't understand about small talk was that the content of the message doesn't carry the meaning of the interaction. It's the interaction itself that has meaning.  

In fact, I really didn't get it until one of my bosses, Lee, helped me to really experience the value of small talk.  We both worked from home offices, so he'd call me each week to see how things were going.  He'd always start out by asking about mundanes thing.  At first, I was tense, thinking and wondering, "What are you really calling about?" "Did I do something wrong?" " Why is he calling me now?"  But over time, I learned that when he called, his only goal was to let me know he was there if I needed him—no hidden agenda, no accusations. It was just his way of saying, "I'm listening."  I began to call them "water cooler conversations".

Small talk was his way of leaving the door open for me to take our "water cooler conversation" in whatever direction I needed.  Often I'd end up getting his advice, or he'd offer some resources to help me, and sometimes we just chatted about nothing in particular. In time, I realized how helpful and motivating those conversations were (even when we just chatted about nothing) and even found myself a bit anxious when we skipped one. That's when I came to realize that small talk really is just a way to signal, “Hey I'm here, I'm listening, and I'm open to having a conversation with you." In this case, the words are used to establish a connection, not to communicate specific information.  Later as I was getting my master's in communication, I learned this type of communication has a name, "phatic communication" (from the Greek word ‘to speak’) and was written about nearly 100 years ago by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. In essence, phatic communication is small talk, and it is crucial for social creatures like us. It indicates a desire to reach out, to create a bond if none exists, or to strengthen a bond when one does exist. In short, it shows we care. And it allows for the gentle flow of light conversation into perhaps a deeper, more intimate conversation.

It's just a starting point.  


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.