The Power of Small Talk

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Throw unacquainted humans into a close-knit social gathering, and observe the plentiful, awkward small talk. Though often uncomfortable, such events can be important to one’s social life, so we must trudge through them, in the hope that we’ll exit the building having skilfully skimmed the surface with our conversation, never diving too deep, committing social taboos, or generally upsetting people with overly-intimate topics.

Small talk has a reputation for being banal, and for good reason. Pointing out the fact that it’s raining seems as ridiculous as pointing out the fact that you have a head – you’re fully aware of both things, and don’t require an outsider to confirm them. But despite being obvious and often painfully dull, small talk has an important role to play, allowing us to leap over a number of social obstacles towards improved, meaningful interaction.

“It would seem that the variability of the weather was purposely devised to furnish mankind with unfailing material for conversation.” —Emily Post, Etiquette

Humans can be sensitive souls. We each have our boundaries and lists of potential upsets, which when breached, cause us to either gently back away to an alternative position in the room, or become angry at the infraction. Small talk is first and foremost a way to test the waters of an unfamiliar person, so that you may better understand their temperament. When finding yourself positioned closely to a person who you know little about, it’s much safer to point out the rain-soaked sky than to launch into a political tirade about your views on transgender pronouns. Until you know the person more intimately, heavier topics should probably be kept under wraps, lest you find yourself on the receiving end of a cold, offended stare.

“[Small talk is] the human equivalent of dogs sniffing butts.” – Intrapersona on the Philosophy Forum

Though trivial, small talk still has great revelatory power. When talking with fellow humans, much of our soul is exposed through non-verbal communication, despite our fear of being vulnerable. A response to how was your weekend can unveil much about the person’s character – the length of their response might indicate their level of confidence; the tone in their voice an indication of friendliness; their slightly lowered head – as if protecting themselves from attack – a exposé of a regrettable history of bullying. As a species we’re excellent communicators, and though small talk might seem bland, it’s the ideal way to learn about a person with who you’re uninformed.

As more of a person’s character is uncovered, we have the insight needed to determine whether to broach more meaningful topics – the things that we actually want to talk about. Few of us have passion for banal small talk; as soon as we understand someone more intimately, our inclination is to talk about subjects that are meaningful; questions that latch onto our soul and don’t let go. Conversation is a great educator, and deep conversation creates lasting bonds with our fellow humans, forging precious friendships that paint our lives with vibrant colour. Such friendships begin with small talk.

“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” —Aristotle

We cannot conceive of a new person fully without modest first steps; the necessary, cautious introduction to somebody’s soul. Great friendships have small beginnings – profundity is preceded by much insipid natter, whether it be about the city-darkening rainclouds, the football results from the weekend, or the latest remarkable idiocy from Donald. Shallow topics are an invaluable stepping stone to greater things.

“Thomas’s mistake, like most of the behavior he leaked into the world, had been avoidable: to join another human being in a situation that virtually demanded unscripted, spontaneous conversation, and thus to risk total moral and emotional dissolution. Death by conversation, and all that.” —Ben Marcus, Leaving the Sea

Small talk is also a way to communicate that you’re interested in somebody – idle chat that reveals a desire to understand the person a little better. This may be painless for an extrovert, but for those crippled with shyness, the process can be formidable. In light of the importance of friendship and meaningful connection, those of us naturally blessed with confidence should always make the effort with introverts, despite them often coming across as coldly closed-off. Underneath the restrained exterior is a lion wanting to roar.

Then there’s awkward silence to consider, a vacuum so dreaded that we’ll say anything to fill it, sometimes with amusing consequences.

“Have you always had a moustache?” —Abigail’s Party

We abhor silence around others because it seems to communicate the following: I’m not interested in what you have to say. When we’re thrust into a cramped situation with another human being, with nothing else to entertain us, not saying anything seems rude. We’re making a conscious choice to stay silent, and that decision can be interpreted as antipathy, or even animosity, towards the other person. Deep down we all want to be liked, and to be surrounded by caring friends. Small talk provides the initial steps towards this goal. Our hopeless, 21st-century addiction to mobile phones acts as a deadly poison to friendship-forming – it’s so much easier to assume the role of an unsociable screen-zombie, staring blankly at our devices instead of having the courage to ask about somebody’s day.

For some people, small talk seems the summit of their capability; a result of a lack of education, exploration, and daring in their lives. Progressing to meaningful topics is impossible if you aren’t aware of them. We need to read books from insightful authors; consume penetrating, thoughtful YouTube videos, and board sky-bound Airbuses towards remote and exotic destinations, if we want our conversation and personality to progress past mundanity. Rarely does Facebook, Instagram, or any other insipid social media platform offer us the content we need to become more intriguing.

“He was permanently impressed by the most irrelevant banalities and impossible to impress with real novelty, meaning, or conflict. And he was too moronic to be properly self-loathing–so it was my duty to loathe him instead.” —Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn

Most of us become guarded when encountering unfamiliar people, in order to protect ourselves from hurt. Their personality is obscure from the outset, and though there may be potential for a deep, meaningful relationship, until we know them better, we keep them at a safe distance. Small talk offers us the means to be necessarily vulnerable, at a slower, more agreeable pace. It’s the precursor to treasured human connection. So the next time you find yourself in close proximity with an unfamiliar person, commenting on the weather might be one of the most valuable things that you can do.

 

 

How to talk good

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For the first time since we’ve been together (2 years), my girlfriend recently used her telephone to call my telephone. I stared at the device in silence for a solid five seconds before picking it up, and intentionally applied a miffed tone to my opening words. I didn’t have a clue what to make of this diversion from the norm, and I wanted her to understand, in no uncertain terms, that I was far from comfortable with it. After some seconds of conversation, it became clear that she didn’t have a solid reason for choosing to call instead of text. I suspect that she just wanted to irritate me a bit.

It goes without saying that texting is all the rage these days. People who socially communicate by calling are often to be found sporting tartan slippers and really-quite-lovely beige cardigans, the perfect casual-wear for nestling into the sofa while they catch up with their middle-aged son, who is silently resenting them for not texting. Perhaps it’s their gnarled, arthritic hands that rob them of the dexterity needed to text. Or maybe, in their infinite wisdom, they understand that talking is a much better form of communication.

The problem with texting is that you’re missing out on two major elements of communication: tone, and body language. Have you ever tried to convey sarcasm in text message? It’s fucking difficult, even with the use of emojis. Your jokes are destined to be met with a stony-expression, and your subject left wondering when it was that you became mentally disabled. This form of communication is literally retarded, missing two crucial aspects of something that is, quite frankly, difficult at the best of times. We need every tool available to us if we’re to successfully transmit the thrilling tale of how we got a chunk of bacon stuck up our nostril as a child. Text message just isn’t up to the job when it comes to such important stories, and they are important, when you consider how much they bond us to our fellow humans. A well-told bacon-anatomy story could be the difference between you being flush with chums, or alone with a noose around your neck. Millennials may be able to hold four text-conversations at once, but it’s unlikely that any of them will have any real depth. This can only be achieved with time, and the full use of your brain.

Another reason for our obsession with texting is our love of distraction and feeling busy. We anticipate every dopamine-releasing ding of our phones, as it means that we can do something easier for a little while and put off the difficult thing in front of us, whether that’s a challenging project, or using our actual mouths to talk to a friend.

Sherry Turkle – a social psychologist at MIT – believes that actual conversation makes us better empathisers, more creative, and more fulfilled. It’s obvious really – of course we’re not going to be able to empathise as well when we’re missing key aspects of communication. Our creativity is bound to be stunted for the same reason – there’s less stimulus for us to react to. Being more fulfilled speaks to the effectiveness of face-to-face or vocal communication in making ourselves known to our interlocutor.

When it comes to romantic relationships, research found that students who spent a lot of time texting were less satisfied with their partnership than other couples. Texting lacks the intimacy that comes with seeing your partner’s face while you’re telling them about your shitty day, or explaining to them why it isn’t acceptable to use the last batch of coffee beans and “forgetting” to replace them. You may be able to get away with that shit over text message, but not face-to-face. Maybe one of the reasons we like texting so much is because it’s a less effective way to communicate, keeping our abysmal secrets safely cloaked. We’d rather be guarded than vulnerable, because there’s less chance of our uncountable negative qualities being revealed. Not only is face-to-face communication more exposing, it’s also more mentally demanding, as our answers must be delivered almost immediately. There’s no social points to be won with awkward ten-second silences while we think of the “perfect” response. Texting is simply easier, but at a cost of decreased intimacy and affection with those around us.

If you have a request to make of someone at work, you’re also shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t do it in person. A Harvard Business Study found that a face-to-face request is a mammoth 34 times more effective than email. This is due to the frequency of email scams, and the trustworthy, non-verbal cues that are conveyed during a regular old-fashioned conversation. Our faces are much more assuring than a dodgy link in an email.

The next time you’re about to text a friend, give them a call instead. It’ll be less convenient, and they’ll probably think you’re a fucking weirdo, but you might become closer to each other as a result. Even better, meet up with them in person, risk embarrassment and social awkwardness, and gain a potential companion instead of a distanced associate. Communication began as face-to-face grunts, and while we may have advanced a little since those hairy, savannah-dwelling days, that method of discourse still reigns supreme.

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The demon of task-switching

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Ask someone how their work day is going, and they’ll probably tell you that they’re busy. It’s the default small-talk answer; a less boastful way of saying that they’re a productive, valuable employee, despite the fact that they constantly have Messenger discreetly open on their screen. The busyness claim isn’t necessarily a lie, many of us genuinely feel this frantic sense of rushing throughout the day, as though there aren’t enough hours to accomplish what’s important. We often leave the office with a frazzled brain, with Netflix and the warmth of our partner as the only remedies that can haul us from the brink, until morning rolls around and we have to go through the same stressful process again. If Sisyphus happens to be a colleague of yours, he’ll be watching on with mournful, comprehending eyes.

Busyness does not equate to productivity, not by a long shot. We’ve all had unquestionably busy days, and felt like we’ve achieved nothing. Productivity is burdened by a nefarious snake lurking in the shadows, which strikes regularly and with great force – distraction. It’s a defining 21st century problem, with entire industries dedicated to seizing your attention and holding onto it for as long as possible. We have smart phones; smart TVs, smart watches; flashing and buzzing with alluring notifications that are almost impossible to ignore. How can you be expected to maintain your focus on what’s important when your wrist is constantly purring at you? Forget about holding an engaging, valuable conservation with another human if you both have your phones on the table – you’re communicating that the most important thing in your bubble is the sinful black device that you’re secretly praying will light up, to distract you from the uncomfortableness of human interaction. Reading a message on your phone is less awkward than trying to adequately communicate with the person sitting opposite you, but the latter is a profoundly more effective way to interact, because it includes vocal tone, and body language. Not only are the technological distractions of our era making us less productive, they’re fucking with our ability to communicate as well.

Being distracted/busy is easier than being productive, because often, the important work that we need to get done is challenging. The gentle rumble of our phones, the emails, or the Slack notifications are greatly anticipated, as it means we don’t have to feel dumb anymore, even for the briefest moment. Those few seconds of distraction add up to hours over the course of the day, and according to experts, the incessant context-switching might be stealing away almost half of your work day. Another study returned less drastic results – up to a quarter of your productive time. Each content-switch squanders a measurable amount of energy reserves, and damages your competency for the next task, especially if it’s a complex one. One experiment found that constant online distractions can be as damaging to your intelligence as missing an entire night’s sleep, or being a regular marijuana smoker, a staggering find. There’s also the flow state to consider – that elusive condition of getting into the zone, where your productivity reaches terrific peaks. You’ll never attain this state of mind without extended focus – it’ll take you 12 minutes to re-enter it, after every distraction. You’re depriving yourself of a bucketload of fulfilment if you continue to live a life of interminable task-switching. Science clearly tells us that we cannot physically multi-task – all we’re doing is quickly switching between work, and the moments that it takes our brains to re-align add up to precious hours. Personally, on days when I’ve been particularly distracted, I find that I’m more tired and infinity more irritable in the evening, to the chagrin of my suffering girlfriend.

If you’re exhausted from having your attention constantly and selfishly yanked away from you, try some of the following tips.

Do just one thing at a time. The more you task-switch, the more tired and stressed you’ll feel, in addition to being a great-deal less effective throughout the course of the day. Do whatever it takes to maintain your focus on a single thing, then move onto the next once done.

Turn off your notifications. This isn’t as traumatising as you might expect – whatever your colleagues are messaging you about can probably wait for a few hours, and your Facebook notifications can wait for a fucking eternity if you know what’s good for you.

Be proactive, not reactive. You don’t have to read every notification or respond to every message instantly. Your colleagues and friends aren’t going to cast you out like the heinous village rapist. Be proactive by taking some time at the start of each day to write up a list of what’s important to you, and set allocated periods for stuff like emails/messages. If you’re brave enough to resist the dopamine-fuelled buzz of distraction, you’ll likely achieve many great things.

Take the occasional 15-minute break. Studies have found that people who do this are more productive. You might consider adopting the Pomodoro technique, a productivity and time-management tool that can yield fantastic results. There’s free apps out there specifically for this method of working.

Invest in some good quality, noise-cancelling headphones. People are fucking distracting, and we’re just as blameworthy because we often want to be distracted. Drown out your pesky colleagues with some beautifully ambient sounds. Personally, my favourite is Rain on a Tent, it’s like camping and working at the same time. While you have your headphones on, politely ask your colleagues not to distract you.

Practice mindfulness. This may as well be a technique from the gods, it’s espoused by medical professionals, productivity gurus, health coaches, and every other well-being related profession the world over. All you really need to do is sit still every day for 15 minutes, and try to retain your focus on your breathing. Eventually, you’ll learn to recognise when your brain has wandered off, and to bring your focus back to what’s important. Meditation isn’t some mystical practice performed by orange-clad ninja monks, it’s a fantastically useful tool for everybody to use. There’s a solid reason for its popularity of late.

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You can reclaim a good chunk of time that has been stolen by distractive task-switching, and become a much more efficient and fulfilled chimp. Hold a steady hand up to all those who would distract you, and take your happiness to new heights.

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