Popular Culture  •  June 26, 2011

The Mysterious Power of Small Talk

“Small talk” has been a bane of my existence all my life. I could never figure out why small talk has such a critical role in socializing with others. Why is it that trying to talk about particle physics at a party is looked down on? In fact, why are parties necessary in the first place? Why can’t we just meet with one another, sit down in a quiet place and exchange our knowledge and insights? As silly as it may sound, this question has baffled me all my life.

The British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar, has a possible answer: What we call “small talk” or even “gossip” is what our language was originally intended for. That is, sharing of practical or intellectual knowledge is an unintended use of our language. When I first learned about his theory in the book, “Connected” by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, something clicked inside me. A lot can be explained when you think of it that way. Briefly I’ll explain his theory as it pertains to small talk.

When we humans work as a team, the combined effect can be greater than the sum of its parts. This is known as “synergy”. 1 + 1 can be 2.3 or even 3. But this is not always the case. 1 + 1 could be less than 2. It depends on how well or badly the team is coordinated. For us to be able to work as a team, like a single organism, we need to have a bonding mechanism. Communicating our objectives and individual tasks does not automatically create a cohesion in a group of people. We need to understand one another at a more personal level. Monkeys and apes achieved this through social grooming, but grooming is not an efficient way to achieve this, because it is an one-on-one activity. As more members join the team, at some point, there wouldn’t be enough time in a day to do all the grooming necessary to maintain the group cohesion. The synergistic effect will start to decline. So, if monkeys were to keep growing the size of their teams, they would need to come up with an entirely different method of socializing. Grooming isn’t going to cut it. Enter language. We humans can talk to multiple people at the same time, and we can be doing something else while we are talking. Not only that, we can learn about other members who are not even there. It is much more efficient than grooming, and it is reflected in the size of a cohesive team we can form. For humans, it’s 150 (aka “Dunbar’s Number”). For other primates, it’s much smaller. When we have a small talk, we are essentially grooming each other in order to maintain the cohesion of our social network.

This is an incredible theory. It turns the purpose of language upside down. “Small talk” isn’t small at all; it’s the most important use of our language. It is what allows us to work as a team and achieve monumental feats.

Assuming that Dunbar’s theory is correct, we can now answer my lifelong questions mentioned above. People are not interested in talking about particle physics at a party because a party is an opportunity where we can learn about more personal and social aspects of one another. And, the reason why we are interested in these aspects is because we want to cooperate with others, help one another, or work together. We see others as potential collaborators, partners, teammates, or a support system.

But what if your goal in life is to be as independent and self-sufficient as possible? In fact, that has always been my own goal in life. My parents touted “independence” and “self-sufficiency” as the highest virtues in life, and naturally their values rubbed off on me too. It is natural to assume that “independence” and “self-sufficiency” would lead to “freedom”, so, this is a very American ideal as well. In the book, “Connected”, such people are called “loners”. When your ultimate goal in life is to be self-sufficient, you have no reason to have a small talk with anyone because you would have no interest in maintaining any group cohesion. Learning about the personal and social aspects of someone would be useless to you. You wouldn’t care how Joe and Jane are feeling today, because such information is irrelevant to your independence and self-sufficiency. On the other hand, more tangible, practical, and technical information becomes valuable; whether it’s about particle physics or how to fix an air conditioner. Furthermore, if you are trying to learn something tangible, you wouldn’t want multiple teachers in your room simultaneously trying to teach you multiple things. Acquisition of tangible knowledge can only be done one at a time, like grooming. So, loners don’t see the point of attending any parties.

If you are not interested in being self-sufficient, and would rather work as a part of a team, you wouldn’t care to know any technical or practical details of any topic, because you would just find people who know their stuff and collaborate with them. In “Connected”, such people are called “cooperators”. But for the cooperation to work well, you would need to learn about the personal aspects of your teammates, like how trustworthy they are, how reliable they are, what motivate them, what they like or don’t like, who they get along with, and who they have conflict with, etc.. To achieve this, it’s better to have a more personal conversation in a more casual setting. That is, small talk.

Ultimately the literal content of a small talk is irrelevant to the participants. When you ask your business client “What are you doing this weekend?” you are not trying to see if he is doing something that you might also be interested in doing; you are trying to figure out what sort of things your client likes to do. If his reply is, “I’m taking my kids to Disneyland,” you now know he has young kids who like Disney characters, and that your client approves of it enough that he wouldn’t mind taking them to Disneyland. The more you learn about his personal side, the easier it becomes to maintain that relationship.

This is especially true if you are a boss with many employees. It’s pointless to learn everything your employees know. You wouldn’t employ them in order to learn everything they know (which would be my own inclination as someone striving to be self-sufficient). You hire them so that you wouldn’t have to learn what they know. Your primary job is to manage the cohesion and the integrity of your team. Are they happy? Are they motivated? Do they like each other? What incentives do they respond to? Etc.. You would need to have small talks designed to yield the answers to these questions.

For some “loners”, it’s not that they lack the ability to have a small talk, but that they are blind to the purpose of it. They strive to be self-sufficient and are unaware that other people do not. They assume that everyone else is also trying to be self-sufficient. Naturally, they would feel baffled as to why anyone would be interested in having a small talk. There is nothing fun or stimulating about small talks if you are not a cooperator. Some people assume that if you weren’t born with the ability to have a small talk, you could never have it. This may not be true. If a loner suddenly acquires an interest in cooperating with others, he might have no problem making a small talk.

At a dinner party, Joe, a lawyer, starts talking about the case he is currently working on. It’s something about intellectual property, and he starts explaining all the technical details. Jane is a cooperator, so she is bored to death listening to his lecture. If she ever gets into a legal trouble over intellectual property rights, she could just hire him, so she wouldn’t need to know all the details. She has no interest in becoming a lawyer herself. Jack, who is a loner, is keenly interested in the topic because he owns his own software business, and intellectual property is a topic that concerns him. The more he knows about this topic, the better he would be able to manage his intellectual properties. Jane can no longer stand Joe’s monologue, so she interrupts him and changes the topic: “Hey, Joe, how is your wife and kids?” Joe is not strictly a cooperator or loner, somewhere in-between, so he can switch his mode. He starts talking about his family, and he also asks Jane how her dog is. At this point Jack is bored to death because he has no use for that sort of information.

Suppose Jack is completely blind to the purpose of small talks, and assumes that everyone else is also trying to be self-sufficient. Even if Jack falls in love with Jane, he would insist on sharing useful and tangible information with Jane because he would assume that she appreciates it as well. The deeper he falls in love with Jane, the more details he would share with her, because he would assume that she is impressed by his knowledge and generosity. But from Jane’s point of view, it’s the exact opposite. She would become increasingly bored and overwhelmed by Jack. This is where self-sufficient loners get into trouble. Marriage is a form of cooperation, so Jane has the upper-hand in this situation. If Jack wants to be with her, he needs to realize that cooperators are more interested in knowing who he is as a person. If he does realize it, he may not have any trouble having a small talk. Once they have kids, this realization becomes even more critical. We humans are social creatures by nature. We cannot entirely avoid cooperation, so the values of cooperators would be more dominant in our societies. Most people want to understand others, and want to be understood by others, as an emotional being first, and as a source of knowledge/information second. When you reverse this order, they are often offended. This is why most business emails start out saying things like, “How are you?” or “I hope you enjoyed your weekend.” And, end with expressions like “Have a good week,” or “Hope to see you soon.”

People often describe boring conversations as “talking about the weather.” This is not “small talk” because it is not an effective way to learn the emotional and social states of your cooperators. “Weather” is a topic we choose when we talk to people we don’t care about (but feel obligated to talk to). “Small talk” and “talking about the weather” need to be distinguished.

“Small talk” is a method of conversation where we choose the topic that is more likely to reveal the emotional and social states of the participants. It’s mutual, we choose it in order to reveal our own emotional states also. Dentists often have photos of their families hanging on their walls. I never understood why people do this. I had always thought that they were just showing off how beautiful their wives and kids were. Now that I understand the purpose of small talk, I see why dentists have photos on their walls; They are inviting their patients to have conversations where they can bond at a more personal level.

Some people are great storytellers, and can entertain and make everyone laugh. But this isn’t necessarily small talk either. I used to think that whoever talks the most and makes other people laugh the most, was the best conversationalist at the table, but now that I see small talk in a different light, I have a different criterion. Often these loud performers do not care what other people are feeling. Their objective too is misguided. They are trying to get as much attention as possible, and they turn every social situation into a performance. They don’t care about socially bonding; they are just trying to satisfy their own emotional needs. When you go see a live comedy show, you are not socializing with the comedians; they don’t even know you are in the audience.

Another reason why some people cannot make a small talk may be because they are afraid of revealing their emotional states. They may be perfectly aware of the purpose of small talk but their fear prevents them from participating in it. Some people say, “I hate people”. This is actually impossible. Our genes are programmed to require interactions with other humans. Hating people is like hating air. When someone says “I hate people”, he actually means “I’m afraid of people”, as fear and desire are two sides of the same coin.

To be able to have an effective small talk, you must be able to have inter-dependent relationships with others where you are as eager to offer support as you are to receive it. If you have a dependent relationship, you would only be interested in being heard and understood by others, so you would end up delivering a monologue, and not care about the emotional state of the other person. If you are independent, you wouldn’t have any relationships; you don’t understand the emotional state of anyone, and nobody understands your emotional state either, and the total effect is always the sum of everything you did and nothing more.

I feel that we should rename “small talk” to “big talk”, and we should stop thinking about “gossipping” as something superficial. Small talks and gossips function as the adhesive of our social networks. They are so critical for our survival that we invented language for them. Thanks to the Internet, sharing of practical and technical knowledge can easily be done with the strangers on the net. It is not critical that we do it with our immediate friends and colleagues. Given that our time is precious, when we meet other people in person, having a “big talk” is a more efficient and productive way to spend our time.