In Defense of Small Talk
Part One of a Two-Part Series. Read Part Two here

Small talk gets a bad rep for being shallow and meaningless. Poor thing. Like HR departments all over the world, small talk is unfairly dissed only because people don’t understand its purpose in society.

When done well, small talk can be the life force that keeps you from burning out of social life. Much like a good HR manager that focuses on cultivating a positive work culture and not just on being an administrative headache, small talk can be a legitimate social tool when applied correctly.

The anti-small talk establishment persists in suggesting alternate conversation approaches. One option is the intellectual conversation—most recognisable at dinner parties, or between friends who think they went to good schools. These conversations tend to be ego-fuelled, circular, uninformed, and ultimately, so very boring. They remind me of A-Level General Paper classes or the discomfort I feel when watching those annoying JC inter-school debates. Can we just agree to send each other the relevant URLs after dinner, and get back to gossiping about mutual friends not present?

Most entertaining is whenever a serious debate veers dangerously from “the issues” to outright personal attacks. This is best achieved by either side saying: “oh wow, you are being really defensive here,” or “of course you say so la, you are privileged what!”

Get me out of here, seriously. When I see “intellectual conversations” listed on a girl’s dating profile, I’d roll my eyes but swipe right anyway because I’m curious to know if my bio and list of fake interests appear to be clever enough for her.

Not every conversation needs to be pretentious, of course. Substantial and fulfilling conversations between friends are indeed one of the greatest joys of life. It is always comforting to share our struggles, and to feel empathy for our friends in return. If we are discussing practical issues concerning life administration or career matters, friends can help us break through mental barriers, or introduce us to people with a lot of money or power. Yes!

However, there is no need to get all heart-to-heart with people you’ve just met. All questions appear to be innocuous till that one turn in conversation that becomes a wee bit too intrusive: “Oh ok, so is that why you moved to Singapore?”, or “So, wife’s back home?” There is a possibility of getting too familiar too fast especially with the nervousness of meeting someone for the first time, so why risk the awkwardness by starting on a personal thread?

Deep conversations are an unnecessary emotional investment into an interaction that may last less than ten minutes. “So much effort dunno also for what,” is the perfect way to summarise how I feel. This is where small talk serves its purpose. So why does small talk get such a bad rep?

Common hatred for going out late, big groups, and small talk have become trendy topics that bind people in their early 30s together. “Oh, I hate small talk,” is a common refrain.

Everyone suddenly wants to be seen as an introvert. If I could get an ounce of courage for every post I see on Facebook about how to deal with, be with, or identify with an introvert, I would have enough balls to come out of the closet and unabashedly tell everyone: Hey, guess what, I’m an extrovert and proud of it!

Non-stop, left and right, I hear people tell one another, “Oh, I’m surprised you are an ‘I’”, in reference to the Introvert score on the Myers Briggs test. Even that effusive girl you know with over five thousand followers on Instagram says she’s an Introvert, trust me.

(Tip: If you score an “E” on the Myers Briggs, disclaim by saying you are an “introverted extrovert” or “extroverted introvert”. Or that you actually enjoy spending your weekends at home reading. Or that you grew up shy but learned to be friendly because society demanded it of you.)

By declaring a disdain for small talk, friends leave an impression that they are reflective, not shallow, and enjoy reading books. I understand—the experience on earth is elevated when you feel that you are consuming only the equivalent of complex carbs for the mind, and are continually rejecting what you feel is the sugary insulin-spiking alternative of small talk or the latest celebrity break up story.

While small talk need not dominate every conversation, it plays an important role when called upon at the right moments. During the course of your job, you’d meet new vendors or potential partners. Perhaps this happens at a conference where you need to “mingle” (what a disgusting term!) with strangers, huddling together in groups of three or four. It is most appropriate to open with small talk. Even with good friends who I haven’t seen in a while, I’d prefer small talk for the first ten minutes or so of when we meet.

Small talk allows you to get comfortable with one another’s body language, tone of voice, and mutual expectations of social cues. All this happens without the need to overplay your cards or get personal. It makes time for each party to calm down, get over the jitters of meeting a new person, and settle into the groove of understanding one another’s speech patterns. By establishing a base of comfort—having covered a joke or two about the food or music in the room, for example—it’s much easier to continue with deeper topics like what each person is currently doing for work.

It is easiest to remind yourself that the words or topics don’t matter for the first few minutes—you just need to keep the banter going. That’s why small talk seems so unsubstantial. It is meant to be devoid of content and full only of form. The gesture matters more than what actually transpires.

That being said, note that small talk can be done well or done badly – a positive or negative gesture if you will. A successful five to ten-minute session need not be boring, and will give each party enough information to decide how to proceed with the rest of the conversation.

Say you are introduced to a girl at a bar and you bring up the weather. Specifically, you say that you wish it would rain tomorrow because you would be attending a company team-building event in Sentosa. If she doesn’t take the bait and replies with a “Oh yah, I dunno also,” please don’t go further: find a way to involve others in the conversation or just go to the bathroom. But if she takes out her phone, checks and replies, “Bad luck dude, all bright and sunny tomorrow,” then don’t be stupid and buy her a drink already!

Small talk and its purpose in society is misunderstood because people only recognise its existence when it’s done badly. I have spent many years as the most awkward person in the room and over time, have developed the sensitivity towards what constitutes good and bad small talk out of a pure need for survival. I have found that small talk can both be useful and enjoyable. For all that its done for me, the least I could do is attempt to give small talk a good name.

Loading next article...