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July 9, 2015

Why small talk is a BIG deal. (And a skill you should master)

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on February 2, 2018.

If you hate small talk, you're not alone—but Vox's David Roberts explains why "filler" conversation is actually important in social settings.

Small talk has often been described as a lesser form of conversation. Anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski wrote in 1923 that it was "purposeless expressions of preference or aversions, accounts of irrelevant happenings, [and] comments on what is perfectly obvious."

The value of small talk

However, Roberts believes that small talk should not be judged on the information it conveys—its semantic content—but on its purpose in creating social bonds. Conversations also have emotional and social significance independent of their specific meaning, he points out.

And that function of small talk—to convey positive feelings, reaffirm shared experiences, and demonstrate concerns—is "not 'small' at all," Roberts writes.

While the "rhythms and rules" of small talk will vary by the context of interactions—as chit chat between doctors and patients often won't be the same as between doctors and other clinicians—it serves similar purposes in all interactions. "It weaves and reweaves the social fabric, enacting, and reinforcing social roles," Roberts says.

The challenge of small talk

But for people that focus on the semantic value of speech, this type of "ritualistic" talk can be very difficult. For example, Roberts says he likes talking to people, but small talk makes his "fight-or-flight instincts kick in." And that, he explains, is because of his personal experience with communication.

Roberts says he writes and reads more than he talks to other people—and it shows. "It's like exercising one set of muscles and not another; when it comes to language, I have massive upper-body strength and puny, spindly legs," he writes.

Small talk "is an important skill, one that many people lack and are never taught," Roberts concludes (Roberts, Vox, 7/7).

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