Small talk makes the world smaller

…the fate of America will be importantly determined
by how we treat each other
in the smallest acts of daily life.
That means being a genius at the close at hand:
greeting a stranger,
detecting the anxiety in somebody’s voice
and asking what’s wrong,
knowing how to talk across difference.
More lives are diminished
by the slow and frigid death of social closedness
than by the short and glowing risk of social openness.

David Brooks

How we treat each other in the smallest acts of daily life……

Of all the things I’ve learned, I believe conversations authentic, truthful. sharing of information, knowledge, feelings, is how we show our interest in one another—conversations are what changes the world. A great conversation that reveals and shares something about oneself can build bridges, forms alliances, create common ground, overcome differences and forge trusting bonds. Such an exchange of words, emotions, and intellectual content advances our sense of self to another and expands our understanding.

We all want conversations. We prefer them over text messages. We prefer them over email. The studies show that they produce dopamine rushes and make us feel better. We like to talk. We liked to be heard.

All conversations start with thoughts converted into words made up of letters. Every idea starts small.
We care about the little things that make up our lives and our thoughts. We care deeply about small matters that make up the molecular structure of our mental well-being.

We notice the nuance. We delight in the detail. We curate the clues.

There is so much micro information that is critical to our understanding of the macro situations.

And then this phase is uttered:
“I hate small talk!  

I can’t tell you how many people I meet, coach, and encounter– executives, leaders, people with extraordinary influence—Who say this aggravating phrase.

These are the same leaders who are promoting a brand, raising funds, even wanting to meet new love interests….

It’s the arrogance I hear. And the fear. I hear some introversion and shyness. But mostly ego. I don’t like to do small talk. I don’t like to listen to small talk. I don’t have time for such petty little things.

Somehow we labor under the great and harmful misconception that conversing with someone new is truly less pleasant than remaining isolated. Somehow we prefer isolation over connection and conversation all in the face of the medical and scientific evidence to the contrary. In our ridiculous minds we believe avoiding the anxiety of a conversation will be more pleasurable and more beneficial than connection. We prefer loneliness over the effort to connect. Yikes!!!!

Small talk is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions.”

We hate small talk because it is perceived to be a waste of time and as an impediment to a meaningful conversation and /or we hate it simply because we think we are not good at it.

Of course, no one likes disingenuous phony exchanges. Fraudulent facial expressions. Phony smiles, handshakes, and phony phrases.

But small talk gets a really bad and undeserved bad rap.

Small talk is the verbal foreplay of all new conversations. But some people are only about efficiency. Some people aren’t into foreplay.

Not appreciating small talk is like the person who is not interested in the notes of wine.  They’re disinterested in the flavors of the palette and the colors of the palette.

Volumes of research tell us, reinforced by our own experiences, that conversations make us feel socially connected and increasing our happiness and health. Whereas feeling disconnected is depressing and unhealthy. Nevertheless, our lives afford us many opportunities to converse with others that we routinely forego. Our self-centered instinct is to view one another as objects rather than as humans.

How else does a conversation start? How does a relationship begin?

I am not talking about meeting “strangers”. I am talking about people you already know—but don’t know at all. The work colleague, the next door neighbor, the fellow parishioner, the parent of your kid’s best friend, a member of the board you sit on………..

Extraordinary how much we miss with a lack of curiosity, empathy, compassion, and presence eroded by the anticipation of anxiety and discomfort around small talk.

And this avoidance hurts us and we all lose. Loneliness prevails.

Let the beginning of the conversation happen. It is awkward. You are awkward, they are awkward. Words are said. Body language articulated. Faces expressed. Tone and inflection uttered. Listen, notice. Before you fire your pre-loaded cannon of fodder. Reveal something true about the moment, about you.

C’mon John, I just don’t like the vapid verbiage, the cheesy chit chat, the robo convo, or the hollow “how are you?”

It is our arrogance that prevents the conversation.
Small talk is often about feeling small or making others feel small. We become our worst selves by either shrinking into nothingness or blasting everyone with our bravado.

But we all know when someone generously acknowledges us and listens to the small things and we connect and our confidence grows. The power of we is always bigger than me.

No “small talk”?  Get over yourself.  
Unless you’re going to be a hermit, a Tibetan monk or going into solitary confinement. You’re going to interact with other humans that is necessary and also critical for our human flourishing.

The great battle of the ego has a war cry: My needs first!

Stop thinking that the world comes to you. That you are a special guest and deserving of curated conversations that are tailored to your needs and interests.

How do we lift the burden that others must always initiate? That others must treat us as guests, why? Why can’t we have a host mindset? You are always the host—even if it is not your event. Worried about people meeting. Making sure people are having a good time. That people feel welcomed and connected. Try that on for size.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.  Maya Angelou

Many people think they need to be armed with clever questions? Curiosity is more useful than a list of queries. Yes, a good question can spark a more authentic exchange. But again, are you the guest or the host?  A great host is concerned about the comfort of the guest. A host is not a 60 Minutes reporter.

Small talk makes the world smaller.

I’ve written volumes on this general topic and I’ve taught workshops on adopting a networking lifestyle to thousands. I am trying to avoid a “how to” post by giving you a bunch of tips, that you will in turn try to memorize and exacerbate the problem. 😊

I’m just telling you to re-think your view of small talk. To re-think your role in vilifying small talk. To start to see it as the most important talk.  Stop hating small talk.

Conversations are the way we form and build relationships. It’s how we love. It is the path of energy and discovery.

But nothing happens if we don’t take a small step forward and say hello…..

Elaine and the challenge of talking to people and the battle of our minds.

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