Human connection begins with small, simple acts: a meeting of the eyes, a smile, a nod, a wave of the hand. Casual conversation—small talk—ensues, starting with the weather or current shared predicaments, such as late buses and long lines. Then it turns into talk about where we’re from, what we do, and why we’re here.
The anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski called this “phatic communion,” derived from the Greek word phatos, a form of the verb phanai, which means “to speak.” Malinowski described this communion through speech as one that “does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas” and observed that the words uttered in this linguistic form are “neither the result of intellectual reflection, nor do they necessarily arouse reflection in the listener.”
One could argue that in lacking the exchange of ideas, small talk is a lesser form of speech, devoid of intellectual stimulus and meaning. It would be easy to characterize it as trivial and pretentious. But small talk is more than idle chitchat. It’s a common thread that connects strangers—a crucial first act between two disconnected beings. We derive greater happiness, increased well-being, and an enhanced sense of belonging from these spontaneous, seemingly insignificant moments of human connection—exchanging pleasantries with a barista, witty jokes with a colleague at work, friendly banter with a fellow dog walker at the park.
The importance of small talk was recognized as early as the 18th century. “There is a fashionable kind of small talk which you should get; which, trifling as it is, is of use in mixed companies, and at table, especially in your foreign department; where it keeps off certain serious subjects, that might create disputes, or at least coldness for a time,” wrote the British statesman Philip Stanhope, better known as Lord Chesterfield, in a letter to his son in 1752. “There is a certain language of conversation, a fashionable diction, of which every gentleman ought to be perfectly master, in whatever language he speaks. That delicacy of diction is characteristic of a man of fashion and good company.”
The act of small talk itself is what sets it apart from formal discourse or heavy debate. It’s more social than informational, intended as a mode of action, not a medium of thought. It does more than it says, taking on everyday topics, asking and answering common questions, and building agreement rather than dissent. In doing more than saying, small talk trucks in sociability more than semantics.
Small talk also possesses an almost ritualistic quality. Start with a conventional opening, take turns speaking and responding, end with a pleasant closing: “Nice talking to you!” “See you!” “Cheers!” It falls somewhat into the social custom of ice breakers, a segue of sorts to ease into a bigger or deeper discussion. Social functions centered around small talk—cocktail parties, mixers, welcome receptions—exist to alleviate the fear of negative outcomes arising from connecting with strangers. Small talk provides reassurance through its predictability and familiarity.
On the conversational routine of small talk, the sociolinguistics researcher Justine Coupland wrote: “People actively recreate the bonding and respecting behaviors that are the social fabric of their communities.” Through small talk, a sense of normalcy is evoked and social roles are enacted and reinforced in a wide range of societal settings: buyer and seller, doctor and patient, employer and employee, classmates, colleagues, guests. Even as a mere exchange of words, small talk fulfills a social function that other speech acts forego.
In addition to continuously weaving the social fabric of society, small talk is a fundamental social bonding mechanism utilized throughout the animal kingdom. For instance, ring-tailed lemurs use vocalizations to “groom at a distance,” keeping in contact with their species mates when separated. More than that, however, vocalization exchanges between these animals allow them to develop closeness. Akin to human small talk, these vocalizations serve an evolutionary need to bond with others. As noted by Asif Ghazanfar, a psychology professor at Princeton University: “Talking is a social lubricant, not necessarily done to convey information, but to establish familiarity. People think that conversation are like exchanging mini-lectures full of information. But most of the time we have conversations and forget them when we’re done because they’re performing a purely social function.”
Small talk is a long-lasting fashion staple designed to outlive any momentary trend. If small talk were a color, it would be a soft and subtle pastel shade rather than a loud and vibrant neon. If small talk were a fragrance, it would have a fresh, understated scent rather than strong, sharp notes. If small talk were a basic taste, it would be sweet rather than bitter, salty, or sour. If small talk were fabric, it would be a soothing cotton rather than shiny, luxurious silk.
Small talk is not simply talk for talk’s sake—quite the opposite. Small talk is no small feat at all. It’s a significant undertaking driven by the human desire to connect. And for a brief moment in time, engaging in this serendipitous act reminds us that we have more in common with one another than we thought possible. We don’t live a solitary existence; we’re in good company.
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createdAt:Fri, 23 Mar 2018 18:21:10 +0000
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