Too much, too soon

Picture this: at your cousin’s wedding reception, a friend of the family approaches you; someone you’ve never met. Smiling, he says hello, then asks if you plan to have children and if not, why not, and if so, how soon.

Or imagine this scenario: there’s a new hire at your office and your team goes out to lunch to welcome her. You find yourself seated next to this person, you introduce yourself, and she immediately inquires about your position on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Weird, right? It’s not socially acceptable to ask such personal and controversial things at the start of an interaction, especially with a new person. In some cases, it’s even smart to keep conversation light no matter how long you’ve known the other person.

Small talk gets a bad rap

And yet, one of the things networking haters love to bash is small talk. There is a rational basis for this – we all want to have meaningful conversations. Spending time on superficial topics like the weather or where we’re from or how our day was can feel like a waste.

But small talk does have its place. We don’t actually want to have deep conversations with all people at all times.

There’s a time and a place

Deep, heavy conversations only really work with the right people under the right circumstances. There’s a complicated formula that determines when that is. The trust level between the participants plays into it, as well as the reason for the interaction, and its possible consequences.

I’ve noticed that it’s often easier to dive into heavy topics fairly quickly with someone when I don’t think I’ll ever see them again.

I vividly remember sitting on the dusty ground outside a youth hostel in Corfu in the middle of the night many years ago, telling some guy I’d just met my deepest, darkest thoughts. It worked because it didn’t matter. I was leaving an hour later and there was almost no chance I’d ever see him again. There were no consequences either way.

When we need small talk

In most social interactions, things aren’t that simple. The people we meet represent potential for the future, and are part of a web of connections. The conversations we have with them can impact our future interactions, and our relationships with the wider community.

So we take it slow. We use small talk to feel them out, gently probe the potential that exists there for trust and further depth.

In some cases, we might determine that we don’t feel comfortable going deeper, but we still have some reason to continue interacting with the person, such as family ties. In that case, small talk is an invaluable tool for maintaining an amicable but loose tie with the person while keeping the distance and boundaries that feel right.

Sometimes we might want to get into a heavy discussion with a person even if we don’t trust them. I’m thinking here of times we want to confront someone in rigorous debate in order to defend and promote ideas we consider important. An example might be calling someone out on a racist or sexist statement or action. That certainly transcends small talk and can be a very laudable thing to do.

But it takes an incredible amount of energy and skill to dive into a conversation like that, especially if we want to do it effectively and really be heard. So when we’re choosing our battles and don’t want to engage in a verbal confrontation, small talk is a way to maintain that boundary.

What’s the real problem?

All this leaves me wondering what it is we are really objecting to when we say we hate small talk. Is it environments where there’s nothing but small talk? People who, no matter how long you know them, refuse to go beyond small talk and let you see more of their true selves? What is it?

Whatever it is, I don’t think it justifies writing off small talk altogether. I think we can all agree that it is a valuable and even indispensable tool for human interaction, and should keep its rightful place in all of our social toolboxes.