Why Small Talk Has Big Implications for Wellbeing

In our always busy, always on, task-driven world, small talk is often deemed perfunctory, or even unproductive.

At work, at home, and in our communities, these little chats are no longer in vogue. It happened by accident. No one (at least not me) woke up and thought, you know what I could do without? Personal anecdotes from the world around me. It didn’t happen by design, it happened by default, for a few reasons:

1. Our phones are more interesting (at first). Who wants to hear about someone’s weekend when you could watch a dog ride a skateboard on the Internet? Our phones are great sources of immediate gratification. But over time they erode personal connections.

2. People work remotely. Remote-working peers typically only see each other for “work time.” Not lunch time, break time, pass you in the hall and tell you this funny story real quick time. While water cooler gossip may be on the decline, so are the moments when Bill from accounting reenacted his daughter scoring her first soccer goal over the weekend or when Jan from marketing vented to her entire department about how her mother-in-law thought tuna casserole was the perfect Christmas dinner. These moments are when you got to know people.

3. We are overscheduled. Meetings have tight agendas, calendars are blocked in 15 minute windows, and the second a conversation doesn’t immediately pertain to what you need to get done, it’s tempting to excuse yourself for other, more important business.

And while we are busier than ever, studies show, almost half of us feel lonely and isolated. Furthermore, only 53% of Americans say they have meaningful, daily face-to-face social interactions.

If you’re finding this current state of affairs a bit depressing, the good news is you don’t have to start hosting potlucks to get daily connection. Here are a few ways to get deeper personal connections in the life you’re already living:

Make eye contact, smile, and wave if you’re feeling ambitious. Sometimes you don’t have to say anything at all to start connecting (introverts rejoice).

Most of us are longing for human connection. Simply showing that you’re open to conversation (instead of looking down at your phone) invites people to come up and chat.

Ask questions (beyond, How are you?). When you ask someone how they’re doing, you’ll typically get one of three answers: Good, tired, or busy. To create deeper relationships, start with deeper questions.

That’s such a cool shirt, where did you get it? What are you reading these days? Do you have anything fun planned for the upcoming holiday? These questions launch you into a conversation that is more meaningful that our typical passer-by exchanges.

Use the time you already have. Waiting for the last person to join the conference call? Standing in a pick up line? In an elevator? These are prime opportunities to engage. Even a casual “that hold music was pretty weird” can help break the ice and relax those around you.

Not every conversation needs to involve unpacking your childhood or a detailed analysis of the royal family kerfuffle. Even a sentence in everyday wait times can contribute to feeling more connected to the people around you.

The seemingly insignificant moments of small talk are how we relate to each other and form bonds that extend beyond project deliverables and pick up times.  Next time you’re tempted to pick up your phone or “jump right into the agenda” look up at the people around you, and connect with them.