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The value of small talk
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I'm reading
The value of small talk
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The value of small talk
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
19 August 2015

The value of small talk

While great conversations are important, sometimes all we need to do is talk about the weather.

Written by Liz Evans

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

It can be tempting to regard deep and meaningful conversation as the key to worthwhile connection, and in many ways it is. But while great conversations are important, sometimes all we need to do is talk about the weather.

You see, when we talk about the weather, we’re not actually talking about the weather. As British psychotherapist and School of Life faculty member Philippa Perry puts it, “When I talk to you about the weather, all I want to know about is the temperature of our relationship.” In other words, when I greet you in the morning with a smile and say something like, “Bit nippy today isn’t it?”, I’m not really interested in whether you’re shivering away beneath your puffer jacket. I’m offering some momentary warm-heartedness towards you and wondering how warm-hearted you might be feeling towards me. And the vehicle I am using is weather talk, arguably the pinnacle of small talk.

Small talk, like gossip, is prone to bad press. Often dismissed as superfluous, immaterial and superficial, it suffers from an unappealing reputation. Regarded by some as little more than an awkward social convention, by others as an introverts’ nightmare, small talk can activate our personal insecurities far more than deep conversation. This is because small talk is about first impressions, and as we know, they count. But if we can shift into a more empathic position, where we are able to see small talk as part of a system of relating, we may become more comfortable with it.

Making small talk can often feel much harder than engaging in deep conversation because it serves to introduce us to each other. It therefore needs to involve a certain amount of neutral common ground if we are to meet with mutual respect, sensitivity and understanding. We can work extremely hard at this, avoiding certain topics, and developing our repertoires for others. (Don’t ask someone what they do, search for common ground, keep it upbeat and above all, don’t talk about the weather.) Or we can simply relax and recognise that making small talk is less about what we actually say and more about how we relate to each other as we say it.

Looked at this way, small talk has a valuable role in our daily lives. Swapping snippets of chat is a means of reaching out and making contact with others. It’s an easy but vital means of avoiding loneliness, of feeling engaged without needing to dig deep, dazzle or impress. If we strive to be deep and meaningful all the time, we may exhaust ourselves as well as others. We don’t have to be clever, smart or funny to acknowledge each other with a passing comment or two, and a light, transient exchange can be deeply nourishing on a busy day.

Talking about the weather is perfect because it’s a neutral topic, and it lends itself to conversation in just about any situation. We don’t have to think too hard about the weather, we all experience it, we’re all affected by it, it’s not too personal and it’s constantly changing. We can safely strike up a conversation with just about anyone, anywhere, by talking about the weather. It’s a perfect example of small talk, a perfect way of saying “I’m friendly. Are you friendly?” as Perry puts it.

Other nicely innocuous starting points might be the décor of your surrounds, the quality of the wine or coffee you’re drinking, any music, art or literature that might be in the vicinity, how you each came to be here, who you each might know here, and–why not?–careers, hobbies, pursuits and pastimes. Enquiring about any of these subjects will serve to express interest in your fellow human being, which is all you need to establish contact.

From there, you can see about making real connection. Dogs and children offer some of the best openers because they provide a focal point—and often an entertaining one at that. Dog walkers and parents have a ready-made community to tap into, so if you’re lucky enough to have one or the other (or both!) you’re more than halfway there.

As humans, we are neurologically geared for relationship. Contact and connection are intrinsically linked with our sense of wellbeing; without them we are prone to the downward spiral of loneliness and even depression. A fleeting exchange that requires nothing more from us than a smile and a brief nod to the environment can sustain us as we move through our day. Conversations are great, but we don’t always have to be great conversationalists.

Liz Evans

Liz Evans is a Jungian psychotherapist and writer based in Hobart.

Feature image by Amandine Thomas

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