Why ‘Small Talk’ Is Big in Business

Disparagers of the mostly unremarkable pleasantry are missing the bigger picture.
small talk

I was having dinner the other night with some friends of mine who are moving to Germany next month when the conversation turned controversial.

No, we weren’t talking about politics or the latest dubious social issues of the day. It was a deep and insightful conversation — but we weren’t exactly splitting the conversational atom, either.

The discussion was about “small talk,” that informal, seemingly useless form of discourse that is currently dividing our nation.

OK, maybe it’s not dividing our country like some other issues are; but the point is still relevant. People either like small talk, don’t mind it or hate it entirely.

“How’s your day?”

“Boy, the rain is really coming down out there.”

“Hey, how was your weekend?”

“So you’re from New Jersey? That’s cool. Have you ever heard of Bruce Springsteen?”

“What’s your favorite color?”

Or, perhaps, the worst, and most common, offender: “How are you?”

At best, small talk is pleasant, brief and harmless; at worst, it’s annoying, disruptive and seemingly never-ending.

My friends and I were almost completely split on the subject. I was the proponent of small talk. My friends were largely its critics.

How did this conversation come up in the first place?

You see, my friend had recently interviewed for and accepted a job with a German startup. As part of his interview process, he described how his German-based interviewer made a comment about how Americans tend to talk a lot.

That insight led to my friend — whose mother is German and who himself is a German citizen — to relay that Germans typically don’t engage in small talk. Thus was born a long and cavernous conversation about the validity of short and shallow conversation.

My support of small talk stems largely from the fact that I’m awesome at it.

Not to brag, but if you’re up for talking about today’s weather, random restaurants in the city you live in, my thoughts on how Chicago is really the best summer city in the world, the latest topics trending on Twitter, or your weekend undertakings, call me up.

In fact, call up any Talent Economy source, columnist, podcast guest or influencer contributor; chat with some of my colleagues at Human Capital Media, too. It’s likely that at some point in time they’ve been on the other end of my small talk mastery.

Jokes aside, I am genuine in my belief that small talk is a big deal in business or any human interaction. This is because I don’t consider small talk to be small. I consider it to be taking a genuine interest in the person I’m talking to, even on the most trivial matters.

To be clear, I’m not a small-talk abuser. I’m not going to steal your time with my long-tail opinion on why Bitcoin is an asset bubble or musings on my latest Netflix obsession while you’re in the middle of an arduous work task at your desk.

But if I have an interview with a source over the phone, for instance, I find it natural to start the conversation by getting to know a little bit more about that person. My intention isn’t to learn their entire family history, but just finding commonality about the city they live in and other simple pleasantries is worthwhile conversation.

After all, in many instances, small talk is often the starting point for more meaningful relationships — relationships that are helpful in a professional context down the road.

Small talk is almost like a form of professional currency; it’s a gateway conversational tool used to develop a basic form of trust. It makes the conversation seem human, not simply transactional.

This doesn’t mean that all small talk is so powerful. Most of the time, it is indeed a pointless pleasantry. And there are definitely instances where conversation of this ilk is indeed annoying and disruptive.

As a leader, small talk holds even more value. In using it to learn more about those you lead, it becomes a great management tool. Knowing that John, for example, is really into Spanish cuisine will be helpful later when you can personalize a year-end staff gift to him with, say, a gift card to his favorite restaurant. You likely never would have learned such a fact without some form of small talk.

Detractors will say that small talk is a waste of time. Cumulatively, people probably have spent many hours of their life trapped in what seem like meaningless conversation, often with people we don’t want to be talking to.

But while carrying on with the clerk at the grocery store may seem meaningless in the moment, the act applied in other contexts might yield something far more worthwhile. I’d rather engage in thousands of small talk conversations without any clear value or payoff if I know that all it takes is one or two of them to yield something worthwhile.

The point is: The ability to initiate and sustain small talk is most certainly a needless skill in most situations. But developing a talent for it will likely pay off in other ways when you least expect it.

Special note: This will be my last weekly Talent Economy column for 2017. To readers: have a happy holiday season and a great New Year’s celebration. I’ll be back writing in 2018.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.