Don’t Do Small Talk? I Can’t Wait!

Spring is a wondrous time of year. Almost on a daily basis come fresh signs that the Winter has finally passed and Summer is on its way and then it changes again. For the Brits, who are obsessed with the weather (understandably), Spring with its erratic conditions, provides rich opportunities for small talk. This Spring the weather is likely to feature as a throwaway topic of conversation even more than most years as the Brits emerge from lockdown restrictions.

Why? Well, because small talk has been rather limited over the past 12 months and more often not been dominated by the bigger discussion which has consumed us all. In the old days before coronavirus (B.C.), small talk was often deemed a necessary, but unwelcome, bolt-on to any ‘important’ conversation.  Indeed it became one of the first casualties of working the “new normal” way and in the early days that was one of the pros of meeting via video link. The time slot was set, the clock was running and there was little time for informalities.

Small talk just wasn’t a good fit and attempts to engage in it were often awkward, caught up between stuttering streams, the bumping of conversations and an inability to read body language from the chin down. Small talk just doesn’t work very well via the main stage cast by a video setting. No, small talk is the social dance that takes place earlier on the bill. It’s the warm up slot, the backstage repartee, the laid back grooves of the chill out room, that nevertheless have a role to play in the whole performance.

Without it, meetings become something else. They become less affable, less natural; they have become less engaged.

We have seen many faces appear on our screens, had many conversations – perfectly genial, informative and good natured, but rather clinical and with the noticeable absence of the feel good factor that comes from a throwaway conversation.

There is a reason for small talk. That reason has much to do with building relationships, of getting to know another person and finding common ground to explore. Every good business relationship, every deal brokered – or crisis averted – is dependent on these relationships (often buoyed by humour). It has become easy not to do it, but we should not forget the role it plays and not be afraid to engage face to face, rather than reach for a convenient emoji.

In the coming months (with hope) more restrictions will melt away until the point where we’ll return to a free range existence, like rescue hens transported from the battery farm. I know that I am not alone in wondering just how strange socialising will be – the simple act of meeting friends or colleagues for a drink – and what we will talk about. Will we be babbling away excitedly like a child after the first day at school or will we find ourselves struggling to know what to say between uncomfortable silences?

Most people, over the past year, have found their social circles whittled down to a handful of people for whom the conversation could be deemed ‘casual’. For everyone else, there has been a reason to talk. So we will have to learn the art of small talk once more and my hunch is that we will revel in its banality, see it as something novel and refreshing – certainly in that period before we have got used to the change.  One tip if you struggle with small talk – just make yourself aware of what is going on around you in the world so you can demonstrate an awareness and wider interest; broaden your focus from the the detail of the micro to the expanse of the macro and, most important of all, appear engaged with what other people say to you, i.e. pay attention, be interested and listen.  Have something to definite say when asked how you are rather than the trite and ubiquitous response ‘good thanks, you? (which you then won’t even listen to anyway).  There’s always something to say.

So I for one, look forward to some decent idle chatter in the next few months and the novelty of choosing to engage in small talk as the occasion unfolds, rather than sticking to a script which involves the ‘ticking’ of a Zoom room clock and making the world a very dull place and my plea to anyone who has children or is hoping to be a parent is to engage those enquiring minds in regular bouts of conversation encouraging more than monosyllabic grunts before it is too late as it is my firmly-held belief that social media is a creeping poison to the art of conversation.