If you're one of those people who freezes up in stress and horror when you enter a party and remember you're soon going to have to come up with something non-inane to say to a room full of perfect strangers, the Vox's David Roberts feels your pain.
"I hate small talk. Hate it. And when I say I hate it, what I really mean is I'm abysmal at it. Just a total failure," he recently confessed on the site.
So can Roberts and others like him who despise empty conversation just give up, pour scorn on pointless banter, and avoid small talk entirely? That's the question at the heart of Roberts' article examining the science of small talk (yes, there is such a thing). And I am sorry to report, small talk haters, the verdict is in and you're not going to like it -- small talk actually accomplishes big aims.
Not communication but bonding
The in-depth article (hat tip to Science of Us for the pointer) examines the history of scientific research into the function and importance of small talk (or lack thereof), tracing expert thought on the subject from its early days when science agreed small talk was, essentially, a waste of time to today, when studies have revealed exactly how much important stuff is going on when two strangers exchange pleasantries about traffic or sports.
People aren't wrong in noting that small talk is basically completely void of interesting content. Linguists agree people communicate basically nothing of substance when they engage in introductory chit chat. But sharing ideas or information isn't the point, Roberts explains. Building and reinforcing social relationships is. The primary function of small talk, he writes,
is social, not to say something but to do something, i.e., make contact, reaffirm shared membership in a common tribe (whatever it may be), express positive feelings (and thus lack of threat), show concern, and so forth. These are not unimportant things, not "small" at all, really, but they are different from communicating....The communication of ideas or information is secondary, almost incidental; the speech is mainly meant to serve the purpose of social bonding.
Shifting from using words to communicate ideas to using them to set people at ease isn't easy for everyone. For Roberts, "it's like trying to speak a foreign language," for instance. But just because small talk is content-free and sometimes extremely difficult doesn't mean it's silly or shallow. In fact, "it is an important skill, one that many people lack and are never taught," Roberts concludes.