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MISS CONDUCT

Advice: Why does small talk get such a bad rap?

Social pleasantries are often labeled as trite, but it’s really a gateway to deeper connections.

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Why is small talk so maligned? It’s the gateway to deeper conversations! Do people want their co-workers to start conversations with “So how has generational trauma affected your relationships?” What are your thoughts?

A.C. / Cambridge

When small talk is broadly and universally maligned on principle, it’s usually by people who mistakenly believe that its absence would result in deep, meaningful conversations that would naturally adhere to the speaker’s own topics of interest and emotional boundaries. The only people who can maintain such a fanciful notion either lack imagination, and/or have been catered to all their lives. You’re right about the important role of small talk: It’s the lobby of your soul, the foyer of the feelings, and maybe you don’t want to let someone in any further.

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But sometimes, also, reasonable people malign small talk as a momentary expression of frustration at how often it is not done well. The quality of conversation, however, is independent from how deep it goes, as illustrated in the table below:

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How do we keep small talk in the upper left where we want it? “Ask people questions about themselves” is popular advice, and it’s great for a second or third conversational step. It’s not a good introductory move, because there is no “getting to know you” question that works for everyone. What do you do, where are you from, family inquiries, icebreakers such as “What do you do for fun?” — each of those queries has its passionate haters. (Trust me, I get letters.) These questions can bring up topics that are painful, complicated, or simply not conversationally fruitful.

Instead of flinging questions like a blindfolded darts player, offer your own information and invite the other person to do the same: “Hi, I’m Linda, that’s my husband, Bob, over there. We’ve lived on Wonderwharf Avenue since forever. I know our host from elementary school — he won all the spelling bees. Tell me about you!” Linda’s new friend now has a range of potential follow-up questions and points of connection.

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It may feel self-aggrandizing, but “I” statements followed by open-ended questions, or even an encouraging look, are generally the way to go. Think of it as offering the other person a conversational launch pad. By the same token, don’t ask yes-or-no questions, because people feel like they flunked banter when they have to say “No” and can’t think of a quick change of subject.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.