The secret science behind the power of small talk
Creating conversations is how we create relationships, so where would our conversations at work, networking events, or elsewhere be without small talk? Would we have found our best friend, special someone, or valued business partner? Without the light banter between Jeopardy! champion Amy Schneider and Ken Jennings on the quiz show, would we even have known that Schneider powered up with self “pep talks” while listening to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” before each game?
We often overlook the importance of this deeply rooted yet habitual part of our social fabric. But small talk inspires much more than trivial babble, often setting in motion some of our most-valued relationships. From the polite chitchat among coworkers that eases the start of a stressful meeting to building powerful bridges at networking events, small talk has always been an important “social lubricator” that builds trust and relationships across cultures—even more so for early-career professionals after graduation.
Studies show that small talk is responsible for nearly one-third of our speech, even if some cultures participate in it more than others. It’s hard to believe that these initial preambles can have such an impact on a judge of character or even on how we categorize relationships as friendships, work colleagues, or acquaintances. However, being custodians of our own conversations by using small talk allows us to tap into relationship dimensions of power, solidarity, formality, and function using what linguists call topic management to lead conversations toward intended outcomes, like business or networking pitches.
We often think the objective of our workplace conversations is to impart information; however, conversations also serve the purpose of maintaining relationships that stem from a deeper subset of linguistics called phatic communication. These synergistic forms of chitchat complement social and cultural considerations rather than simply functioning to open dialogues. Think of the greeting “Let’s do lunch sometime,” which doesn’t require a specific date (while the phatic expression “How’s it going?” during the remote work era in a pandemic can remain a faux pas). Getting a firm grip on how sociolinguistics can help position our conversations past the realm of uncertainty and toward lasting connections is the larger purpose.
Still, small talk has the power to make or break a job prospect, a networking encounter, and an intercultural relationship. Going beyond utility conventions and intentionally noticing the semantics of a conversation can land a new business deal or networking opportunity. In the business world, expertly crafted small talk can be used as the icebreaker that leads to the next business pitch, a fail-safe to get relationships back on track, or even simply as agency for building rapport with partners before a negotiation.
The science of small talk
You may wonder why you sometimes feel like you’ve known a person after only exchanging a few words. The familiarity has its roots in interpersonal synchronization, where speech rhythms, walking patterns, and even breathing match with those of others simply from our shared perceptions that we notice as we acquaint ourselves with each other.
Findings from Princeton University in the act of human communication and storytelling revealed a powerful phenomenon called “neural coupling,” where our brains essentially get in sync during the act of storytelling. Researchers monitored audience members and storytellers via MRI machines and found that their brain waves synchronize during a powerful story, revealing that stories are one of our most powerful transcultural ingredients for communication. Just think of a networking situation where you jump-start a conversation with phrases like “Have you ever . . .,”; “What if . . .”; and “Did you know that . . .”
Stories can be lightning rods that supercharge our conversations, actively “syncing up” our minds so that we’re not just sharing meaning with each other, but human experience itself.
Based on our combined years of training business professionals high-impact language and communication skills as New York University professors and as language and communications specialists at the United Nations, we believe everyone can forge mind-to-mind connections through creative, lesser-known small talk strategies and techniques from the field of linguistics to create more meaningful “small talk” that leads to rewarding “big talk.” Approach small talk by forging a mind-to-mind connection with stories that:
- Bond you with others over a professional, social, or personal cause (pinpoint a shared value such as empathy, integrity, and honesty and then build a story around it).
- Illustrate a skill, method, or process important for personal growth (stories make things easier to remember just as with Isaac Newton and the apple).
- Highlight how to overcome a shared challenge (think of powerful decision-making moments in your life that have the potential to inspire your counterpart to make similar decisions in their lives).
Where will small talk be five years from now? The more important question is, How will small talk create your future? In a world of constant connectedness, envision small talk as a spectrum where you can navigate your social and career prospects toward success.
Whether you find yourself in an abyss of “jargon land” chatter or searching for confidence to propel your conversations forward across cultures at the international “watercooler,” understand that meaningful ways to establish relationships begin by coordinating our words, rhythms, and actions in patterned ways. Then, see if you can connect small talk to a greater purpose—because the greater purpose of networking, especially in a globalized society, isn’t just to land a sales or business pitch, but to establish the connection of true human communication.
Dan Bullock is a language and communications trainer at the United Nations and a professor at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. Raúl Sánchez is a clinical assistant professor of global communication and a corporate program coordinator at the same school. They are coauthors of How to Communicate Effectively With Anyone, Anywhere.