American author and entrepreneur Keith Ferrazzi says this in his book Never Eat Alone:  And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time:  "The best way to become good at small talk is not to talk small at all."

I used to think of myself as an introvert.  Not all the time, but much of the time.  If I had my druthers I'd generally prefer being curled up with a book to chatting with a stranger.  (This chatting with a stranger is often called networking.)

Nevertheless, I increasingly realize that my anxiety with new venues and new people does not have to be.  Furthermore, there are very good spiritual reasons, as well as business reasons, to embrace what most of us would term "small talk."

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article on this subject last year titled "The Benefits of a Little Small Talk."  The article highlighted a growing body of research that pointed to the surprising benefits of small talk.  It notes a study of Chicago commuters published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that researched interactions among strangers.  The research showed that subjects who engaged in conversations with strangers reported significantly more positive commutes that those who rode in solitude.  "Talking with a stranger may not offer the same benefits as talking with a close friend, but we underestimate its importance to us." says the study's co-author, Nicholas Epley, Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.  Dr. Epley traded in his own smart phone for a less distracting featureless phone, which has made him, he says, more open to "wonderful, short conversations with strangers."

Furthermore, the WSJ notes that anyone who passes regularly through busy public spaces can observe that our obsessions with our digital devices has lessened our interface with strangers and has truncated "small talk" and openness to the accidents of the new.

This was brought home to me last year when I was in Dallas on business and found myself a bit lost and late to my next appointment.  I was walking through the downtown arts plaza and I looked for some friendly, authoritative face to approach for aid.  But, as I looked around, I found every person I saw was shuffling along fully immersed in their personal private technology Idahos, oblivious to any person or thing around them.

I didn't want to rudely interrupt, but I was annoyed because I needed some directions!  This made me think about how much present richness and human feeling we sacrifice for an ersatz virtual reality.  (I increasingly feel the same way walking down Broadway in New York when half the folks bump into you while texting, rather than taking in the infinitely unique international culture and urban magnificence constantly on display in my never-boring city.)

Noted psychologist Richard Weissbourd of the Harvard Graduate School of Education states, "Children learn empathy not just by how we treat those closest to us but also by how we acknowledge the strangers around us.  [Children] notice if we appreciate the server in the restaurant and say hello to the mail carrier--or if we treat them like they are invisible."

In other words, small talk humanizes us across our normal divides and habitual comfort zones.  Chit chat is an important social lubricant that promulgates empathy and a sense of community, small and large--a sense that we are all in this together.

Yet there's more to small talk than just social openness and improved well-being.  A study in the Social Psychological and Personality Science Journal titled "Friends (And Sometimes Enemies) With Cognitive Benefits" shows that brief incidental interactions boost the brain's executive functions, which are the mental processes that allow us to lead, focus, plan, prioritize, and organize.

Here are three simple ideas for successful small talk that work for me.

  1. Seek commonality.  One good question to ask at an event is "How to you know the host?"
  2. Admit ignorance.  For example, last week I learned all about saving the Prairie Sage Grouse from an idle reference by someone I met at a party.  How fascinating.
  3. Ask specific questions.  (Even about the weather.  For example, if it is very cold out a good question might be "What's the coldest you've ever been?")

One final thought about all this.  Don't look to be perfect in reaching out with small talk.  No-one is perfect except God.  I have found my own shyness can often be a function of my own grandiosity, of my need to project my own perfectionism.  Giving up thinking about what other people think of me is a huge aid in creating embracive small talk

Perhaps all talk is small talk.  T.S. Eliot said the following in his play The Cocktail Party.  "We die to each other daily.  What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we know them.  And they have changed since then.  To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful and convenient social convention which must sometimes be broken.  We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger."  Thank you, T.S. Elliot.