Small talk is generally innocuous—but for some people, it's a major stressor.
In a piece for Vox, David Roberts explores the purpose and importance of chatting about the weather, sports, and each other's families.
"Small talk precedes big talk," he writes. "If you hate and avoid small talk, you are also, as a practical matter, cutting yourself off from lots of meaningful social interaction."
People who engage in frequent small talk are also happier than those who don't, according to Roberts.
The first theoretical examination of small talk came in a 1923 essay by Bronislaw Malinowski, who described it not as true communication, but rather a form of social bonding. He also described it as "purposeless expressions," a lesser form of speech.
Decades later in the 1970s, feminist sociolinguistics noted that the dismissive stance toward speech that builds relationships and a positive stance toward informational speech fell in line with patriarchal disrespect of female social roles.
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In modern times, many scholars have examined the "social language" of small talk.
"It weaves and reweaves the social fabric, enacting and reinforcing social roles … the character of small talk differs from place to place, culture to culture," Roberts writes. "On one level, it communicates information or ideas…. On another level, talking is a social behavior."
The social function depends on body language, tone, context, and cues. Small talk's primary function is to create positive connections and establish similarities between the speakers.
"The communication of ideas or information is secondary, almost incidental; the speech is mainly meant to serve the purpose of social bonding," Roberts writes.
That means an entirely different set of skills is needed to "talk well" socially than is necessary to communicate well. Roberts admits he is not a strong small talker himself, though says he is a strong communicator in other ways.
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"Small talk engages the muscles and habits I have least developed," he writes. "In effect, it's like trying to speak a foreign language—confoundingly, a foreign language that uses the same words my language uses, as though I'm using a familiar tool for an unfamiliar task."
He also notes that white men like him have "the luxury of remaining ignorant of subtle social signals; less-privileged groups live and die by them."
Still, small talk "is an important skill, one that many people lack and are never taught," Roberts writes (Roberts, Vox, 4/3).
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