What is small talk and why does it matter?
Small talk describes all those brief, social conversations that often occur at transition points during the typical working day when people are physically together in the office. People chat as they go up in a lift together; when they grab a coffee or eat their lunch; as they wait for a meeting to start or when they’re packing up their papers at the end. But it’s also worth stating what small talk is not. It isn’t gossip. It isn’t a long-winded complaint or a rant about management! It also isn’t an in-depth or sensitive conversation about someone’s personal problems.
Small talk is relatively light, brief and surface level. On Monday, a typical question might be, “Did you have a good weekend?” On Friday, it could be something like, “Looks as if the weather’s going to be good! Got any plans?” Topics are open and can be shared by almost anyone. They frequently include the weather, current news, sport, health, entertainment, hobbies, holiday plans and family.
UGM research and that of others such as Jessica Methot and her colleagues shows that, despite these interactions being fairly superficial and short, small talk is nevertheless meaningful and carries a range of important benefits. It contributes to employees’ positive emotions and sense of well-being, belonging and connection. The positive effect of these small regular exchanges builds working trust and good relations. There is a sense of camaraderie and community and, in turn, these have been shown to support productivity. People contribute their best work, feel more committed and put in more discretionary effort when they experience their co-workers as people of goodwill towards them.
Small talk breaks down barriers and, over time, helps people build even modest friendships. In these ways, it supports networking across teams and business units. It oils the wheels and makes it easier to pick up the phone and ask someone for some information or assistance that will help you progress a tricky step or navigate a blockage in a pressing project. Small talk turns out to be a big deal!
Small talk and the hybrid workplace
Before Covid, you probably chatted casually with your colleagues for a few minutes as you all arrived in a meeting room and settled down for a team catch up. This small talk at the margins of a work conversation was probably something you scarcely even noticed. In our extensive UGM filming of regular workplace meetings, we always make sure we arrive well before the meeting start time in order to capture this light-hearted chat and banter that typically precedes serious problem-solving and decision-making. We find that this small talk promotes solidarity and establishes what might be termed the interactive climate of the meeting. When the meeting begins after this small episode of warmth, inclusion and collegiality, then conversations are generally more productive and creative, than meetings which have a cold start.
So, what’s happening now when so many of our meetings are virtual and teams are operating remotely for much or all of the time? The evidence from our clients aligns with other research. Current Zoom ‘etiquette’ seems to call for meetings to get underway on schedule, without any opportunity for initial social connection. Even when meeting participants are present and ready to go, they may not actually unmute or turn on their video function until the meeting is formally started by whoever is in the chair. Thus, the opportunity for small talk disappears.
Its loss matters a great deal and savvy managers are realising they need to take action. These small, unstructured social conversations foster cohesion, job satisfaction and productivity. In a recent article on the topic, management experts Bob Frisch and Cary Greene summed it up this way, “The chitchat, the side conversations that lift emotions and promote well-being is one way we strengthen and deepen relationships and is critical to building high performing teams.” For these reasons, we encourage all our UGM clients to explore a range of ways they can intentionally facilitate in a virtual format those informal interactions that often arise spontaneously among colleagues who used to be face-to-face in the office every day.
Small talk, big rewards!
As well as fostering trust, networks and connection, small talk also helps people transition from activity to activity throughout the working day. This was a side benefit of the face-to-face office. You didn’t usually go into your next meeting without the social lubricant of small talk first. These short chats help you to learn a little bit more about your colleagues and help them to see you as a person as well.
These days, astute managers invite meeting participants to join a scheduled virtual meeting even five minutes or so before the planned start time so they can simply chat. This vital interlude of social talk helps people to make a key mindset shift, leaving behind the issues they have just been dealing with in their previous meeting and preparing them to focus on the different challenges they’re about to tackle in this next meeting. Sharing a few small (often fairly superficial) items of personal history and current circumstances helps the team to bond. This social lubricant enables team members ease into their serious conversations together where they often need to solve problems and make decisions under pressure.
Psychological safety and small personal disclosures
Psychological safety, put simply, is the belief that you can speak up and speak your mind without the risk of punishment of humiliation. It’s been well established by researchers such as Amy Edmondson that this is a critical driver that helps virtual (and hybrid workplace) team dynamics, innovation and high performance. The small personal disclosures that characterise social chitchat among co-workers show goodwill towards each other. Trust is built and then maintained. High-performance, remote teams thrive when there is a culture of trust and people share a common sense of purpose. Team members feel that their colleagues are competent and reliable, that they will make good on their promises and will give support when you need it. When you trust people and feel they trust you in return, you can speak up, argue and disagree productively for the benefit of your shared goals. In this context, it is important to note that video meetings encourage stronger personal connection than phone calls.
Small talk can also be a significant social challenge
How do you know what to share or ask other people about during these short episodes of social talk? What is a suitable topic? How personal should you be? How long should you speak? How much detail should you give, if someone asks you a question? How can you segue from small talk to the substance of the formal agenda?
Most people acquire these skills in their first language from years of immersion in their own culture, mixing socially and working with others. In effect, we each learn to unconsciously deduce the sociolinguistic rules and protocols of short, vital workplace exchanges. But these apparently straightforward issues can be extremely challenging for migrants. In other words, socio-pragmatic insights and skills are needed to manage good social relationships in the hybrid workplace. The smooth management of small talk is an important marker of successful integration into the organisation.
But there are social risks for outsiders. Jocular banter can be misinterpreted. A light-hearted moan or whinge can be misunderstood as a genuine complaint. Friendly social talk can come across as intrusive cross-examination. A superficial or light-hearted question can be taken at face value. In a Melbourne workplace, where talk was recorded by researchers, the ubiquitous Australian Monday morning greeting of ‘did you have a good weekend?’ was met with a lengthy and detailed account by a migrant colleague who outlined their entire schedule over the two days, instead of just mentioning one or two highlights. He felt confused when he saw his colleagues’ blank faces. Small talk is extremely important but it’s also socially and culturally complex.
In addition, even among native speakers of English, some people are more socially adroit than others. For example, a manager may be persuaded of the wide range of advantages small talk will deliver to the team, but feel socially hesitant or uncertain. For this reason, the hybrid workplace benefits from shared interaction scripts that capture typical small talk sequences. A script is a pattern of interaction that clearly articulates the target behaviour. In other words, a script functions as a detailed guide outlining what behaviours are appropriate in a given situation. After some weeks of using a script, team members find that they begin to naturally embed it within their everyday routines for themselves.
This is because scripts conserve cognitive capacity by supporting desired behaviours. They go directly to the micro dynamics of change. They reduce the uncertainty and sense of personal risk that any new behaviour initially carries, especially for those from under-represented groups. Stages of the interaction are clarified, along with the behaviours and language examples that provide relevant cues. In this way, the powerful but subtle skills of small talk can be widely shared to benefit every hybrid team.
It is critical for the success of today’s hybrid workplace that everyone acquires the sociolinguistic skills that underpin trust, well-being, good relations and productivity. When brief social routines are included during each working day, everyone reaps the big rewards of small talk!
PRACTICAL IDEAS TO APPLY IN YOUR BUSINESS
6 suggestions to support trust and rapport in your hybrid workplace
- Make Small Talk an intentional item on your agenda at the start or end of a meeting.
- Invite each person to take a minute or so to share just a little about what’s been happening in their lives professionally and personally.
- Create and practise interaction scripts that share common small talk routines and protocols. This will help quieter colleagues or those from diverse backgrounds to feel included. It is also likely to contribute to psychological safety within the group.
- To build trust and foster rapport, make sure that you regularly allow a little time to get to know your team members and also disclose small personal aspects of yourself, so that each interaction is balanced, not one-sided.
- Set aside an occasional team meeting solely for social talk. You could eat lunch together once a week, as an example.
- Make sure you always use the video on function so that eye contact, facial expressions and gestures can be included to enrich your team’s social communication.