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Is Small Talk a Waste of Time?

It’s not about what you say as much as it is about how you say it.

Key points

  • Why do we humans make small talk?
  • A recent study finds that just 4 minutes of small talk enables us to cooperate more closely with one another.
  • Don’t fear or neglect small talk. It’s not about what you say as much as it is about how you say it.
Vadym Pastukh/Shutterstock
Source: Vadym Pastukh/Shutterstock

Why do we humans make small talk? We spend a lot of time worrying about how to chit-chat amusingly or captivatingly. We complain when it seems trivial or a waste of time, and we bemoan the stress of a classic cocktail party where such talk is the order of the day because we may be meeting a number of people for the first time.

And yet we go on doing it. Classes are taught in how to do it well. Cultural mavens dictate what is appropriate and what is not. Books are written on the art of meeting people, making small talk, and connecting with your work colleagues socially.

It can all be very stressful. Yet, the phrase itself, “small talk,” hints that it’s not a big deal. But we pour a lot of seriousness into it anyway. I’ve even coached self-identified introverts in the secret arts of small talk. We identify some topics that the person might feel comfortable talking about and have some expertise in, and then we practice figuring out how to smoothly steer the conversation around to, say, movies starring Humphrey Bogart, or the art of Frida Kahlo, or the aviation skills of puffin penguins (spoiler alert: penguins can’t fly, but puffins can—they’re not actually penguins).

Well, take heart. Research finds that even a mere four minutes of small talk with someone else enables you to cooperate more closely with them. During those four minutes, you get a sense of their personality, and you use that knowledge to figure out how to interact more successfully with that person.

Particularly if you determine them to be extroverted, you find that they are easier to interact with. In addition, we do tend to assume other people are like ourselves, so that we can connect with them more quickly and easily. What we are doing, essentially, is forming a working model of how they like to interact. Even if it’s rough, it can help guide the subsequent interaction.

So small talk is useful as a way to make our human interactions go more smoothly. What else is going on when we accomplish small talk?

The other thing that we are doing is exchanging a huge amount of unconscious information about each other in terms of the basic questions we want to know about someone, particularly when we meet them for the first time. Is this person a friend or foe? Is this person someone I can trust? Is this someone I can work with? Is this person more or less powerful than me? What is our relative social status? What is this other person’s potential as a mate? And so on.

We are usually not consciously aware that we’re "asking" these questions, and we are not aware of the specific answers as much as we get a general impression in our conscious mind that this is a person we might like to hang out with—or not. This is the moment at the cocktail party where you either say, “I’m going to refresh my drink, excuse me,” and disappear out of the other person’s life, or you move in a little closer and say, “How was it exactly that you learned so much about puffins? They’re such adorable birds. Tell me more!”

Don’t neglect small talk, and don’t fear it. It’s not about what you say as much as it is about how you say it—extroverted or introverted, friendly or standoffish, animated or flat-toned. Let it happen and respect the outcome. You’re not wasting your time.


Bose N, Sgroi D (2022) The role of personality beliefs and “small talk” in strategic behaviour. PLoS ONE 17(9): e0269523.

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