In Defense of Small Talk

It’s not shallow, boring, or offensive. It’s a crucial social lubricant as valuable as wine or laughter.

small talk.
Practicing the art of small talk.

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Can you believe this weather? First a major snowstorm, now unseasonable warmth. The election is really a doozy. And don’t get me started on the Oscars!

Small talk gets a bum rap as an enterprise for the shallow, the callow, and the dull. “Life is more meaningful than the weather,” the modern high priests of depth tell us. Small talk is for “those who are too simple minded or lack the attention span to engage in more weighty conversations.” Chatting about sports or TV is boring, we are told; to ask basic questions about family or current events risks offending with our nosiness or our assumptions.

A few weeks ago, a Boston actuary named Tim Boomer wrote an installment for the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column that perfectly captured the current anti–small talk attitude. After a bad breakup, Boomer overhears a couple on a first date chatting about bus routes and the rain. “I wanted no part of this game,” Boomer declares:

I decided to approach my re-entry to dating with a no-small-talk policy. Not that I would insist we talk only about heartfelt subjects; ideally, there would also be plenty of flirtatious joking and witty banter. I simply wanted to eliminate the dull droning on about facts and figures—whether it’s snowing or raining, how cold it is, what we do for work, how long it takes to get to work, where we went to school—all those things that we think we have to talk about with someone new but that tell us little about who the person really is.

Why can’t we replace small talk with big talk and ask each other profound questions right from the start? Replace mindless chatter about commuting times with a conversation about our weightiest beliefs and most potent fears? Questions that reveal who we are and where we want to go?

Well, hold your horses there, Tim! There’s something awfully presumptuous about pressing people to share their “weightiest beliefs and most potent fears” while you’re still on the appetizer course. Call me old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t want to talk about my most intense past love experience on a first date. I’ll share my deepests and darkests when I’m good and ready.

Small talk saves us from such forced intimacies. But not only does Boomer’s approach sound exhausting—like something dreamed up by That Guy in your freshman philosophy class—it’s just plain wrong. Small talk is not wasted talk. It’s a social lubricant as essential as wine and laughter that allows strangers to make crucial first connections across demographic lines. And it’s far from meaningless. People are rebelling against it today in a misguided dismissal of social graces that seem old-fashioned, boring, or wasteful. In fact, we’ve never needed such graces more.

Dismissiveness toward light conversation is nothing new. The New Testament book of 2 Timothy urges readers to avoid “irreverent babble” because it leads to ungodliness; various translations condemn “foolish talk,” “vain babblings,” “pointless discussions,” and “empty speech.” In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer uses the Manciple’s Tale to preach the dangers of “jangling,” a term that encompassed most pointless chatter:

A loudmouth is to God abominable.
Read Solomon, so wise and honorable;
Read David’s psalms, let Seneca be read.
Don’t speak, my son, but only nod your head.

“Idle talk” in these contexts is closely connected with gossip, but the term “idleness” suggests it’s a conversation’s very triviality that turns it toxic. Medieval penitential manuals often warned that gossips would have to account for their every thoughtless word on Judgement Day. If silence was golden, small talk was tawdry.

Post-industrialization, people became less concerned about the moral dimensions of chit-chat. Instead, they began to fear it was conformist and shallow, a poor reflection of one’s personal depth. The German philosopher Heidegger (patron saint of That Guy) devotes a long section in his 1927 masterwork Being and Time to dismissing inauthentic “idle talk,” which he connects to the “dictatorship of the ‘they’ ”: “We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge … we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking.” Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who formulated the first academic theory of small talk, belittled what he termed “phatic communion”—conversation whose purpose is social, not informational—as “purposeless expressions of preference or aversions, accounts of irrelevant happenings, comments on what is perfectly obvious.”

The latest anxieties over small talk are even smaller in scope. First, there’s whether it’s bad for our health. A small psychology study a few years ago found that people who spent more time in “substantive” conversations were happier than those who wasted their time on lighter fare. When researchers recorded snippets of conversations over the course of several days, the happiest person in the study engaged in only a third of the amount of small talk as the unhappiest. But there’s other evidence that small talk is salubrious, since social interaction seems to decrease stress. As one recent paper’s subtitle has it, “Minimal social interactions lead to belonging and positive affects.”

Unfortunately, as Boomer’s “Modern Love” essay illustrates, we are living in a low moment for the art of minimal social interactions. “The criteria by which one chooses what to say shift from ‘what’s true; what’s most interesting’ to ‘what lubricates the exchange; what sets people at ease,’ ” a Vox writer lamented last year. “It’s like trying to speak a foreign language.” Small talk feels phony to some, in part thanks to its embrace by salesperson types—“My motto is ‘every conversation is an opportunity for success,’ ” a networking expert (shudder) chirped to Fast Company. To others, in an era of ruthless efficiency, pleasantries of the past can come to seem like dead weight. With calendars programmed to five-minute increments, and podcasts filling every interstitial moment of silence with wit, shouldn’t conversation be economical and nutritious? Small talk looks like a fussy hors d’oeuvre in the age of Soylent.

Ironically, it’s on the Internet—that bottomless maw of unnecessary but entertaining chatter—that haters of small talk express their complaints. Take, for example, the inexhaustible well of introvert-targeted content all over the Web. Introverts have declared war on small talk. They loathe it because they “crave meaning,” because of the “barrier it creates between people,” and because they “don’t see a reason for beating around the bush with social pleasantries.” The underlying message of most introvert porn is that introverts are deeper than you are, and their aversion to small talk is yet more proof.

Then there’s the whole genre of exquisitely sensitive listicles, seemingly designed to scare people off from even attempting small talk. With headlines like “87 Things Never to Say to Your Babysitter,” they make it clear that even the lightest and most well-meaning blather will be read as problematic by someone. When speaking with a pregnant woman, for example: Don’t remark on the baby’s sex, don’t joke, “You’ll never sleep again,” don’t exclaim “Wow” or ask “When are you due?,” and so on. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it would be easier just not to talk with pregnant women at all. Be careful, too, when speaking to mothers (don’t ask if they’re going to have more kids), to cancer patients (don’t tell them they’re strong), and to atheists (don’t ask them about the origins of the universe). There’s plenty of common sense here—seriously, don’t tell a sick person about a random treatment you read about online!—but the cumulative effect is the conclusion that even the most innocuous chit-chat is a minefield.

Of course small talk has always been a tool to avoid the minefield of unintended boorishness. (“The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” is Eliza Doolittle’s polished bit of small talk to make her fit in with high society, but she veers disastrously off course when she starts to ad-lib about gin and murder.) Even those who found small talk uninspiring once recognized its utility, like the British statesman Lord Chesterfield, who’s responsible for the first-known use of the phrase. “There is a sort of chit-chat, or small talk, which is the general run of conversation at courts, and in most mixed companies,” Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son in 1751. “It is a sort of middling conversation, neither silly nor edifying; but, however, very necessary for you to be master of.”

But I think small talk can be edifying in its silliness, and a pleasure too. Small talk is fun precisely for the reasons Boomer thinks it’s boring: It requires playing within the lines. Using sports, weather, family, and other unremarkable raw material, the skilled conversationalist spins it into gold—or at least cotton candy. In a way, making small talk is like writing a sonnet. It’s the restrictions of the form that make the best examples of it beautiful. Perhaps the reason so many people find it tedious is simply that they’re bad at it.

Chatting about work and education, not to mention trivialities like bus routes and rain, can tell us quite a lot about “who the person really is,” as Boomer puts it. Not because it’s a snobby shorthand for sorting a person by her pedigree, but because it lets you evaluate how she talks about her experiences, how she tells the story of herself, and how she approaches trifles like bad weather. Is she whiny? Wry? Cheery? It’s all informative, and none of it requires badgering anyone to reveal the moment of their most soul-shattering humiliation over cocktails. Ice-breakers like “Tell me about your weightiest belief” ask that your interlocutor dredge the depths of her soul on demand; small talk lets self-revelation unspool with a more civilized subtlety.

It also allows people to speak to each other across demographics. Try asking the plumber “What place most inspired you and why?” or “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?,” as Tim Boomer asks his dates. Maybe you’d get somewhere, which might indicate you and your plumber should explore your friendship on your own time. But more likely, you’d form a quicker bond by talking about “small” subjects like the White Sox or the wintry mix.

On this count, the networking experts are right: Excelling at small talk will make you popular, and justifiably so. Mastering it makes you a pleasure to be around. Someone who can carry on a conversation with anyone; someone who is sparkling and witty on simple topics; someone who puts everyone at ease—that’s the definition of a perfect guest, perfect host, and perfect co-worker.

Big talk, weird talk, deep talk, smart talk—pick your preferred opposite-of-small talk, and there’s room for plenty of it in the conversational repertoire. When it happens serendipitously, it’s one of life’s great joys, and certainly more memorable than how’s-the-weatherisms. But small talk will always be with us, because it’s the solid ground of shared culture. The more divided a people—culturally, politically, economically—the fewer conversational topics we can share. The more productivity-obsessed, the less time for old-fashioned pleasures. And that means small talk is no small thing at all.