“Small talk” is a concept that comes up a lot in career services work. Defined by Google, small talk is “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions.”
The first time I thought critically about small talk was when a student expressed that he struggled with it and didn’t see the point. His perspective was evident in our interactions—the student always showed up ready to talk business. He had burned a few bridges with alumni by asking about opportunities before building a relationship and he had received feedback from peers that his e-mails were too direct. He wanted tips on how to gain the “small-talk skill.”
As a fellow introvert, small talk isn’t always comfortable for me either, so the two of us struggled to maintain friendly conversation by asking and answering small talk appropriate questions. At the end of our meeting, I referred the student to others across the university to help him continue to practice with people of different personalities from a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience. (I separately let my colleagues know the purpose of the exercise.)
After the student and I talked, I found myself analyzing interactions, noticing when I made a good connection and when I did not and factors that led to each scenario. Some passing interactions had become so mechanical that I had produced an assumed socially correct answer to a question I had not even listened to: I cringe when I think of how I mixed up the answers to those questions, saying, “Nothing.” to “How are you?” or, “Good.” when someone asked, “What’s up?”
The student’s question was valid: Why do we even bother?
I’ve since encountered many students asking about how to improve their small talk skills—a concept that career advisers may refer to as networking. Really, they’re one in the same: Small talk builds relationships and establishes common ground.
I recently served as a panelist as part of a student-led event that explored the ethics of small talk. A range of challenging questions were asked:
- Do certain personality types have an advantage in the professional world based on their ability to small talk?
- Do we need small talk?
- Is it productive?
- Is there an alternative?
- Are we most inclined to conduct small talk with people who appear like us?
- Is it possible to build a strong relationship without small talk? Is the lack of small talk indicative of a deeper relationship?
- And, perhaps most difficult of all, is it ethical to use relationships to lead to opportunities? Is there an alternative?
People who are natural relationship-builders have an advantage in the professional world due to the network that they can easily construct. However, I’ve seen many students who are not natural conversationalists excel in their areas of interest through small talk, proving their skills and abilities while showing examples of their work.
One size does not fit all, and in some fields, at some companies, and for many positions, small talk skills and networking savvy are not of highest priority. Better yet, there may be an appreciation and acknowledgement that positive and strong work relationships can be built outside of well-executed small talk.
Is there an alternative? Can we jump right into deep and meaningful conversation? Can small talk be deep and meaningful? Is the alternative to small talk deep talk, or is it simply silence? Would silence be better?
We each have unique perspectives and experiences—some people may prefer jumping immediately into meaningful conversation, some would rather have silence, and some may love small talk. Regardless of your preference, small talk is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. We build relationships and rapport by asking expected questions, hearing expected answers, and sharing ideas about the situations we have in common (e.g. weather, current events, our surroundings) before moving on to a greater purpose.
I have a difficult time imagining personal and professional interactions without small talk, but that’s simply my cultural lens. For those with another perspective, the presence of small talk may seem just as strange.