Some people think small talk is a waste of time.
In fact, we need more of it.
You can do it anywhere. In a supermarket, restaurant or beauty shop. Across the fence with your neighbor.
And small talk offers big benefits for a very small investment.
- Small talk enhances the common pool of human kindness.
When my friend, Jim, visits his cousin in a nursing home, he always stops to speak to the other residents as well. Sometimes he’s met with a shy smile, a double hand-grip, a “bless you!” or a hug. He comes away happier, and so do they. In what can be a dehumanizing environment, Jim acknowledges their shared humanity.
Jerry was a Secret Service Agent who protected two U.S. presidents and three vice-presidents. Some were universally liked by their agents. Those leaders used agents’ names, asked about their families, shared remarks about the weather or sports or the inconvenience of living out of a suitcase.
The goodwill paid off. Jerry knew the names of White House press, staff, and workers. He showed respect for everyone. He truly cared for people. But a side effect was enhanced safety for the First Families (Carter’s and Reagan’s) whose security Jerry led.
- To acknowledge our human connection has religious implications as well as emotional and practical rewards.
Jesus and Moses taught that to love God and others as oneself is the foundation of Hebrew law and the teachings of the prophets. My “neighbor” is not only the person in my tribe or family; whoever needs help is my neighbor. (The Good Samaritan.)
- Small talk reduces fear and enhances safety.
Mediators know the importance of gaining all parties’ trust. We offer water or coffee, ask if the room is comfortable, explain where the bathrooms are. We describe our process and invite questions. Small talk precedes more challenging conversations because participants must feel emotionally safe enough to move forward.
- Our need to build trust is more critical now than ever.
We live in a time of fear. Random acts of terror and mass shootings make us hesitate to leave home. Many police and black men fear each other. Parents are afraid to let their children walk to school without adult supervision. Some of us not only dislike our political leaders but actually fear them.
And yet, our entire social order depends upon a minimum level of trust. Unless we home-school, we must trust our children’s teachers. We rely on public transportation, our armed forces, our courts. We have to trust that the food we eat is safe, our mail carrier is not delivering anthrax, and our doctors know how to cure us. We may be more afraid to fly than before 9/11, but we still do it and trust TSA to prevent terrorists and pilots to get us to our destination. Huddling behind locked doors is simply too high a price to pay. There’s no practical alternative to trust.
Of course, making small talk with strangers is not the whole answer, but it’s a step in the right direction. A friendly hello to your neighborhood cop, teens on the corner, mail carrier or grocery clerk helps us all relax. And trust a little bit more.
© Carolyn Parr and Beyond Dispute Associates, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carolyn Parr and Beyond Dispute Associates with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.