Small talk is more than just polite nothingness, it helps us safely check in, helps us be social, and important helps us find interesting people. But only if we do it right.
SMALL TALK! Hoo ha. What is it good for?
The most common form of small talk is just an acknowledgement of existence.
– It is an utterance of “I see you” without any real depth. When the person at the grocery check out, or the person passing you in the hall/path asks “how are you?” or “you alright?” they don’t really want to know, they are mostly acknowledging that you exist, and they’ll swipe the groceries or step aside, or expect you to or something.
– Unless something is urgently wrong and needing action, the answer is “fine thanks”, even if that isn’t accurate.
– It is considered rude not to respond.
The next most common form of small talk is to decrease the awkward silence.
– If you are stuck near someone, such as an elevator, and you don’t know them, then this is NOT a social situation, quietly ignore them unless they speak.
– If you are sat down at the same table as someone you don’t know in a party or similar situation, this IS a social situation, and it becomes awkward to ignore them.
– Small talk is supposed to be shallow (without depth) and safe (no risky topics) unless there is a reasonable chance that you could be friends, or even close friends.
The last form of small talk is, in my opinion, the most important one. It is a safe way of finding out if the other unknown person is interesting.
– much like the second version, you talk about some shallow common safe topics, but you add in a quirk. This might be a pun, or a reference to some niche knowledge, or including a few things you prefer to talk about (still “safe” for public discussion)
– if the person misses all of those signals, they are not likely compatible with your interests, stick to the safe and shallow topics. If you have an opportunity to move tables, do so and rinse and repeat.
– However, also keep an ear out for them trying to signal you, they may have missed your signals, but are trying the same tactic. If you pick up on them, indicate that you have; perhaps return a pun, or acknowledge the source for the reference, or give a return bit of niche knowledge that is related to what they said.
– If you pick up on each other’s signals, now it is time to work out what you both have in common that you can get deeper about.
Essentially, small talk ensure that we are being polite enough to each other that we can work together against a common problem if need be. It can also be a very useful tool for separating the people that are interesting and compatible with you * from those who are not.
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* That doesn’t mean those people who are not interesting and compatible with you are boring or stupid per se. They are likely interesting and compatible for someone else, and that is okay.