And one of the things we’ve been missing, at least temporarily, during the pandemic, and many of us are beginning to wonder, is what in English is called “small talk” — or, short talk, that superficial conversation.
It’s these casual conversations we have with strangers or people we know just by looking, on the bus line, in a store, in the park walking the dog or next to the office printer, and it’s all about…nothing.
Even those who say they hate these cliched interactions – which in the UK revolve mainly around the weather – have admitted, during the confinement imposed by the Corona virus, that they regretted their absence.
Why do we miss these conversations? What role do they play in our well-being?
This type of interaction tends to “put us in a good mood. Partly because it helps us feel connected to other people, and that’s something that’s really important for humans,” Professor Gilia Sandstrom, told the BBC World of Psychology. At the University of Essex, UK.
Sandstrom has investigated the effect of weak relationships (as opposed to deep ones) on us.
“We have to feel like we’re part of a group and part of something bigger,” she adds.
Talking about trivial matters to strangers makes us feel that we can “trust people and that the world in general is a safe place, like our society.” But in addition to these benefits, says the expert, these quick conversations help us learn new things.
Don’t wait for someone to start the conversation, you can take the lead – Image: Getty Images / BBC
“We don’t learn much from the people closest to us, because somehow we know what they know. So, paradoxically, we get more new information from acquaintances and strangers than from those closest to us.”
The absence of these encounters during confinement made us miss this sense of modernity, as Sandstrom highlights.
These conversations “bring something new and unexpected into our lives. When we talk to a stranger, we don’t know what direction the conversation will take or what we are going to talk about. This can be a bit scary and is one of the reasons we avoid talking to strangers.”
“But this unpredictability is also one of the greatest pleasures that exist,” he says.
We might also notice that when we’re not in a good mood, we tend not to show it during one of these casual encounters.
This is because we try to give our best side to those who don’t know us well, because we want this exchange to be successful.
“By acting like we’re in a good mood, it ends up making us feel better,” explains Sandstrom, who believes all of these effects are “cumulative.”
These surface conversations not only make us feel more comfortable on a personal level, but they also allow us to grow and feel more secure in the professional environment.
What would life be without chatting in the salon? Photo: Getty Images/BBC
“Let’s say you’re my boss and you give me a job to do. If you interact every time, you give me tasks and don’t even ask me how I’m doing, how the weekend was, etc. If you don’t do anything to start a casual conversation, I won’t be on Call you,” Fine says.
This will eventually make the person look for a job where people care more about the employee or pay more, for example.
“Surface conversations generate connection, and that makes us anxious about things.”
On the other hand, a study reported by Sandstrom found that people who have weaker bonds, i.e. known at work, are considered more creative by their superiors. They are essential to “collaboration and building trust,” says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk.
Talking about the weather is a common British custom – Image: Getty Images/BBC
“This is related to the idea that a person has access to more types of information: If they talk to people from different departments of the company, they can learn more—and organize things differently—from one person talking to the same people just three people,” says the psychologist at University of Essex.
Although this is more common in some cultures than others, the vast majority participate in these types of rituals.
About a century ago, the father of social anthropology, Polish-British Bronislaw Malinowski, argued that “small talk” was not the exclusive domain of Western societies, and was not intended to communicate ideas, but to fulfill a social function: bonds.
This is even if the subject matter – as well as the criteria for what is and is not acceptable – varies with culture and region of the world.
Thus, while in the UK, as mentioned earlier, the classic way to have superficial conversations is to talk about the weather, and in other countries it is common to start a conversation about a complaint (how long does the bus take to arrive, how bad the facility is, etc.) .
Not everyone feels like a fish in the water when it comes to getting into this kind of conversation with people outside of their inner circle.
I remember a friend who would look carefully through the peephole and put her ear to her door before going out so she wouldn’t bump into one of her neighbours.
Most of the time, those who avoid these relationships do so because of their lack of interest in others.
For many, it’s a personal matter: being with other people causes anxiety because they fear a negative reaction.
Talking about the weather is a common British custom – Image: Getty Images/BBC
But many also avoid these interactions simply because they don’t know how to act.
“Unless they’re born with this gift and come out naturally, most don’t do it well,” Vine explains.
However, it is a skill that can be acquired through observation and, above all, through practice.
Tips for starting a trivial conversation
The first thing to remember is that it is up to you to start the conversation.
“You’re not expected to be talked to at a party or school event,” says Fine. “You’re the one who has to be willing to take the risk.”
Unless you’re at a professional event, don’t ask “what do you do?” It is better to ask “what are you doing?” , and the other person can answer what they want to tell you.
“The important thing is to show interest in a way that the other person gives you a real answer and that requires an answer with more than one word,” says the expert in the art of conversation.
For example, instead of “How was the weekend?” , to which he might simply respond with “Okay, thanks,” you could say, “Tell me about the most interesting things you did over the weekend.”
Follow the tips on how to start and end a random conversation without being rude – Image: Getty Images/BBC
Another tool available is what Vine calls “free” information.
If you’re on a social date, the other person will surely know the host like you, and you can ask them how they met, for example.
If you participate in an event as a volunteer, you can ask another volunteer if they are involved in this organization.
You should avoid all kinds of conversation-soothing questions.
Fine advises that in situations where you don’t know the other person well, don’t ask questions that you don’t know what kind of response they might generate.
That is, it is better to ask “What about life? Anything new?” Instead of asking something about your husband, which you saw a year ago, because you don’t know if they’re still together, for example.
The same is true for work: Don’t assume the person is still in the same job.
“It’s much better if you ask her to ‘tell me about the news at work,’ as the other person will tell you what they want to tell you about it.”
Another recommendation by Fine is that you don’t compete while chatting, which many of us do without even realizing it.
This means that if someone tells you how bad it feels to be working alone at home during the pandemic, don’t respond by saying it was worse for you because, in addition, you had kids at home all the time.
You’d better answer, “Looks like it was too difficult for you. Can you see a light at the end of the tunnel yet?”
…and end the conversation without being rude
Finally, ending the conversation is just as important as starting it, especially if we don’t want to get stuck in an endless conversation. However, we also do not want to offend or hurt the feelings of the interlocutor.
Fine recommends signaling that the conversation is about to end by displaying what he calls a “white flag,” referring to that used in motorsports to let the driver know we’re entering the last lap.
Trivial conversations are just as important in personal life as they are at work – Image: Getty Images/BBC
She gave examples of “white flag” statements: “Tell me something before I leave”, “I wanted to ask you one last question”, “I should leave, but explain something to me” etc.
Another important point, says Fine, is that if you say you’re going to leave that interaction to do something, you’re actually doing it.
“If you just told someone ‘It was nice talking to you, but I’m desperate to buy you coffee,’ and on the way to the cafeteria you meet someone else, and your interlocutor sees how long you’ve been talking to them, they will be offended, and it can burn bridges.”
“To this new person, simply say that you will buy coffee and they will accompany you, or that you will buy coffee and you will be right back.”
These are all very simple rules that we can put into practice to connect more easily with the people around us, and in doing so, feel better.
“Entrepreneur. Music enthusiast. Lifelong communicator. General coffee aficionado. Internet scholar.”