Why We SHOULD Talk to Strangers: the Big Benefits of Small Talk
Ughhh, Small Talk...
- Urban Dictionary:
One user describes small talk as: "Useless and unnecessary conversation attempted to fill the silence in an awkward situation. Commonly backfires into feelings of loneliness and social discomfort."
- The Catch-22 of Small Talk
For a further explanation of the ways we are negatively affected by our inability to converse with strangers, and more on how small talk helps specifically with communication skills, see "The Catch-22 of Small Talk.”
Small talk certainly isn’t something the average person especially prizes or looks forward to in everyday life. When we think of small talk, we might think of being bored by someone we don’t really want to speak with, or by subjects that don’t ‘matter.’ Yet small talk actually serves important purposes for developing relationships, character, and skills. Small talk (the act of ‘making conversation’ with people you don’t really know well and whom you aren’t sure if you will ever care to know well), is seen by many as awkward and uncomfortable, as described articulately by one user of the Urban Dictionary (above). Yet an inability to make small talk, especially with strangers, can affect our public spaces, sense of community, and general ability to function in public.
So the next time you feel awkwardly unconnected to those around you while killing time in an airport lounge or waiting for a hair appointment to begin, keep the following benefits of small talk in mind, and break that ice.
Benefit #1: Small Talk Creates a Sense of Community in Public Spaces
I’m old enough to remember a time when no one I knew, and hardly anyone I saw, had a cell phone. Back then, bus stops, dentist offices, or even store change rooms were places where you met people. I remember waiting for my mom to try on clothes, hearing her and the lady in the next room each giving friendly feedback on what the other was wearing. I remember my parents discovering small-world connections while we waited for a dental checkup. I remember going with my grandma on the bus and her chatting about all manner of things to other passengers. These interactions had the function of making people who were strangers feel like a community, even though they weren’t neighbours, or co-workers, or friends. I seem to recall more people smiled at each other on the street back then and said, “Good morning,” too.
Benefit #2: Small Talk Helps us Hone Gracefulness and Acceptance
One of the benefits of spending time with people we already know and like is that we can expect to have a pleasant experience with them. In the process of “becoming friends,” we’ve probably become accustomed to their behavioural habits; any small, annoying traits are easily overlooked because of all the things we like. When we talk to strangers, though, we might engage someone in a conversation who will do every little thing to irk us – talk too loudly, mumble, laugh raucously at their own jokes, never laugh at anything, spit on the sidewalk while we’re talking, chew with their mouth open, smack their gum… the list is truly endless.
It’s perfectly reasonable to choose to spend our free time with people whose habits do not drive us crazy, but when we actively try to AVOID spending time with strangers because they might be “weird,” or “annoying,” we forgo a valuable opportunity to increase gracefulness and acceptance. There are many situations in which having good skills in these areas are a great advantage. If being interviewed by someone who performs one of your worst pet-peeves at 20-second intervals, don’t you want to be able to gracefully smile through that, rather than having your obvious distaste be read as something that could cost you the opportunity? If you find a team member to be downright irritating, do you want to be able to look past that and get the job done, or risk being removed because you can’t rise above and aren’t a ‘team-player’?
Benefit #3: Small Talk Could Lead to a New or Revived Interest
Not every small talk interaction with a stranger will be an exercise in increasing patience and acceptance. You might find yourself in a truly interesting discussion when you discover what you have in common. Playing “wing-woman” at a bar one night, I found myself alone while my friend approached a potential partner, and I noticed someone engaged in very non-bar-like behaviour – sitting with a sketchbook and looking at me! As someone who likes to sketch when bored, I didn’t move for a few more minutes, but then got up and went to see what the artist had been drawing. He showed me his somewhat erratic, impressionistic sketches, not only of me but of other people in the bar, and we had a nice chat about why drawing quick impressions of what’s in front of you is both fun and a good way to practice your skills. In the weeks following our meeting, I found myself sketching more often when I was bored in public, rather than playing with my phone, and it was refreshing, to say the least!
Benefit #4: Small Talk is Often How We Begin Our Closest Friendships
When I think of some of the closest friends I’ve had, I realize that our relationships started with small talk. The one I griped with about a certain professor always being late for class, or the one I casually asked to come have lunch at my house when she mentioned how far her place was from campus. Think of all the pick-up approaches (either in-person or online) that start with some lame conversational pretext and end in lifelong love affairs. If we don’t have these “meaningless” interactions with others, we risk missing out on some really meaningful ones down the road.
Benefit #5: Small Talk Can Allow us to Be Someone Who Matters
If you position yourself as open to new interactions and small talk, you might end up truly helping someone you didn’t even know needed help. I think of the woman I met by a pool while on vacation when I was sixteen, who, after about three minutes of chit chat, began opening up to me about her feelings of loneliness and issues with her family. We ended up talking for about an hour, and then I never saw her again. Although I’m sure at sixteen I didn’t have any particularly sage-like advice, I remember feeling happy that I had been able to offer someone even just some empathy and comforting words, and her palpable relief when she walked away was rewarding to see. A chance meeting with someone who feels they have no one else to talk to might change their whole day, allow them to release pent-up emotions, or help them sort through complicated thoughts by talking through them aloud.
Benefit #6: Small Talk Can Bring us Networking Opportunities
Being in the “right place at the right time” doesn’t mean much if you’re in that place with your headphones on and your mind closed to new people. When we make small talk with strangers, we might discover “small world” connections, and if we’re lucky, some of these might turn into opportunities for new jobs, to find a great service we’ve been looking for, or to finally get an inside contact with a band we love. In these situations, the other benefits of small talk, like a sense of community and gracefulness, will help us out, too. When your small talk acquaintance passes your name along, they’ll probably pass along how friendly and pleasant you were, too.
Benefit #7: Small Talk can Inspire!
Seriously. Despite the bad rap we discussed at the very beginning, small talk can lead to a memorable discussion that will last a lifetime and will most certainly “matter” to you. Three winters ago, my husband and I were in India for the holidays – our first time away from our families for Christmas. During the buffet Christmas Eve dinner in the dining room, my husband suggested that we invite an elderly, single lady he had noticed to eat with us; I’ll admit, I was selfishly hesitant, but agreed that it would be the nice thing to do. Never again would I think twice about this decision – our holiday dinner was filled with fascinating stories by this woman, from her time in South Africa at the end of apartheid speaking with women there about their hopes for their children, which led to her later decision upon retirement to leave her native England and move to Pakistan to build schools for girls. She was in India on holiday break from her most recently-built school, and unfortunately the friend who was supposed to join her had been delayed a few days. My husband and I went to bed that night feeling energized about the possibilities that awaited in life, even in the conventionally ‘non-adventurous’ years of retirement, but we would not have had that experience if we had been averse to small talk with strangers.