Is Small Talk Necessary?
There’s a huge difference in how extroverts and introverts experience small talk.
“Small talk is the driving force behind gaining new clients, getting along with coworkers, impressing the boss and maintaining existing partnerships. Using this type of easy conversation forces you to build connections with people on a deeper level, giving you the chance to make a positive impact in someone’s life.” So says Vaspian, a cloud-based phone systems company, on its website.
The view of small talk as a form of social bonding goes back to the work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the 1920s. Whether in Europe or Melanesia, he explained, “purposeless expressions, accounts of irrelevant happenings, and comments on what is perfectly obvious” have the function of establishing “bonds of fellowship” and easing the awkwardness of encountering another person. Simply put, small talk greases human interaction.
Extroverts’ and Introverts’ Feelings About Small Talk
Extroverts say that small talk energizes them, smoothes over uncomfortable gaps in conversation and helps them feel seen by others. When introverts interact with others, however, they’d rather be talking earnestly and meaningfully. They tend to dislike small talk, feeling that it’s trivial, insincere, pointless, time-wasting, emotionally draining and sometimes intrusive.
On that last point, I once went so far as to move our checking account out of Bank of America because the tellers in our local branch accompanied every transaction with “How was your weekend?” or “Got plans for the holiday?” I usually stayed silent, because I was thinking about something that mattered to me, and because what I did outside the bank was none of their business. They would then repeat the question in a sharp tone of voice. This happened so consistently that I could only conclude that the branch manager rated tellers on whether or not they engaged customers in meaningless conversation.
As Malinowski pointed out, with small talk language doesn’t convey information, which gets at another reason why extroverts and introverts feel differently about social chitchat. Extroverts have a much looser relationship with words than introverts do, pouring out thoughts spontaneously without paying a lot of attention to their phrases. Introverts prefer to think before they speak and choose words to more precisely explain what they had in mind. Spouting words as if they were mere body language or murmurs grates on introverts.
The Social Function of Small Talk
According to Indiana University psychology professor Bernardo Carducci, small talk is the “cornerstone of civility” in our society. When you make those inconsequential connections with acquaintances or strangers, he says, you set the stage for greater kindness and less rudeness. However, from my point of view what counts as rudeness isn’t an objective matter. I’m sure those bank tellers and their manager felt they were showing care for me, but I experienced their behavior as rude. Although more people would probably say that pleasant chatter is harmless than would say it’s bothersome, that doesn’t mean the latter attitude is wrong.
When it comes to the impact on happiness of social chitchat versus the deeper, more meaningful conversations preferred by introverts, one study revealed an interesting paradox. A team headed by University of Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl found that on the one hand, people who spent more time talking with others had higher well-being scores than those who spent more time by themselves. On the other hand, those who spent more time in small talk had lower well-being scores than those who had more substantive conversations. Furthermore, the happiest participants in the study had about one-third less small talk and twice as many deeper interchanges than the unhappiest people in the study. Advantage introverts?
Should Introverts Learn to Engage in Small Talk?
Some commentators argue that because most people in our society look positively upon small talk, introverts should learn how to engage in it and act as if they enjoy it also. Here another piece of research I discovered seems relevant. A 2022 study by TollFreeForwarding.com revealed that workers in the United States spend on average nearly two hours each workday in small talk. In the UK, the corresponding figure was one hour and 45 minutes. Imagine how much more productive you’d be than coworkers or competitors if you kept small talk to an absolute minimum.