[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I don’t know about you, but I sometimes worry that I’ve forgotten how to be social, forgotten how to casually chat, how to make small talk.
And then I saw some research that suggested that small talk is actually a crucial part of human interaction, and that none of us are getting enough of it right now. And that’s not good for us. So at our Big Story team meeting this week, I decided to lead our group in some genuine, totally casual, small talk. It didn’t go so great.
[Recording] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How’s it going everybody? Everybody’s got the thumbs up sign. How about that weather this weekend?
Annalise Nielsen: Sucked.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Now, let’s all agree to never speak of that again. If small talk is so crucial though, why do so many of us claim to hate it? Why doesn’t it work when you try really hard to do it? What purpose does it [00:01:00] serve in our daily lives? And what is the lack of it costing us as we deal with another month of non-existent social interactions?
And also, you know, how are you doing? I’m fine.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Hannah Seo is a freelance writer who wrote about small talk for The Walrus. Hi Hannah.
Hannah Seo: Hi.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Where are you?
Hannah Seo: Um, I’m currently located in, um, in Br- Bushwick in Brooklyn. Um, But I am Canadian.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s good. Although, uh, it’s probably much better to be in Bushwick in Brooklyn at the moment.
Hannah Seo: Yes, I am vaccinated. That is a perk of being here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Oh, well, congratulations. Are you going to have a summer there, do you think?
Hannah Seo: You know what, people are already starting to congregate and parks and, uh, you know, do brunches, which I think is a little premature. But, um, I do think that there will be some socialization [00:02:00] this summer, yes.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How was this small talk? Was this okay? I don’t know how to do it anymore.
Hannah Seo: No, this was fantastic. You know, A-plus, you know, really, uh, commend you on your skills.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I just wanted to make sure I could still do it, to be honest with you.
Hannah Seo: You know, it is a muscle that you have to strengthen and I do also worry that I’ve kind of grown into a more awkward version of myself.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Nowhere near as awkward, I’m sure, as I have. But let’s get into the real interview then. Uh, have you been making small talk during this pandemic at all?
Hannah Seo: You know what I’ve been trying my best. Um, you know, occasionally I’ll run into a neighbour, you know, as I’m picking up my mail, then I’ll maybe try to say hi and, you know, ask how their day’s going.
Um, but besides that, it’s really hard, you know, I am a freelancer, which means I don’t have an office, a virtual office where I can kind of talk to coworkers. But it’s, it’s kinda hard, ’cause I think that a lot of other people are also not super receptive to small talk at this time. You know, um, I do mention early on in that article that I [00:03:00] wrote that, you know, every breath feels like a hazard. Every time you share space with someone, it feels a little dangerous and risky. And so I think people are not quite ready to reenter that space.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, let’s get into, uh, what you wrote about then, and putting the pandemic, uh, aside for a moment, which I realize is hard to do, in general, what purpose does small talk serve in our society?
Hannah Seo: Yeah. So what was really fascinating to me is, as I was talking to all these researchers and these experts is that, you know, small talk is not just a way to pass the time. It’s a way to make small connections that are in service of maybe somehow creating larger connections down the line. So even if it’s just someone who sells you coffee every morning, you don’t interact with them in necessarily meaningful ways, but over time you do generate the sense of communal connection and eventually it gets to the point where you feel more grounded. Like the research shows that you feel more grounded in society, in your community, after creating these small, consistent connections [00:04:00] over time.
And so I believe it was Jillian Sandstrom who, um, who did this research who conducted this research. She found that over time, people feel more optimistic about the world they live in if they have more small interactions with strangers throughout their days. Meaning that, um, if you were to ask someone, you know, do you think people are naturally good or naturally bad? People are generally more optimistic when they have more of these small connections in their community consistently in their life.
And, you know, I think that’s so, um, so interesting and such a really evocative data point because, you know, she doesn’t have the research on the pandemic necessarily now, but if we think about all of a sudden reducing those connections until we are no longer interacting with strangers, the danger is that, you know, maybe we feel more pessimistic about the world around us. Maybe we feel less trusting about the people, um, about the strangers in our lives. And that’s so tragic. That’s so sad. And I, I feel really [00:05:00] hopeful that maybe when the world reopens, we’ll be able to rebuild those connections and maybe start rebuilding a sense of optimism, a sense of communal optimism.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, it kind of makes sense, right? Because if you’re not having those just like, totally normal interactions with strangers, then the strangers you meet are the ones you hear about or see on the internet where, where people behave like jerks a lot of the time, or you see the worst examples of people.
Hannah Seo: A hundred percent and you know, the internet is such a, such a poor, poor place to seek out, you know, interactions with strangers, just cause you- the ones with the loudest voices tend to be the most polarizing individuals on the internet.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Hannah Seo: And that’s really not a good sample of the people out there who you could potentially make connections with.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You mentioned the research and maybe I should’ve started with this, but, but if there’s research out there, that means there kind of has to be, you know, a frame of reference to define small talk. Like what do those researchers, uh, qualify as small talk?
Hannah Seo: Yeah, so, I guess it really depends on, um, what [00:06:00] exactly about small talk that they’re studying. This woman named Jessica Methot, um, she, um, studies, small talk in workplace settings. And for her, small talk is defined as kind of scripted conversation, meaning, um, by scripted, she means that most people tend to know what questions you ask and what you say in response.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Hannah Seo: So things like, how are you? I’m fine. How are you? How’s your day been going? You know, those kinds of typical questions and answers that you tend to give in small talk. Um, other researchers will sometimes define it as, um, off task communication, meaning it’s conversation that has nothing to do with the work that you are doing currently or the, um, where the tasks at hand. That varies depending on what aspects of small talk they are researching.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So like how about them local sports team, uh, would qualify as off task conversation.
Hannah Seo: Exactly. Right. If I am, um, like if I’m volunteering at a, uh, at a soup kitchen, um, off task communication is [00:07:00] anything not related to, you know, handing out food.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And since we’ve seen, um, our outside interactions go way down, have we been able to, I know you mentioned, um, one researcher hasn’t been able to, to crank the numbers for the pandemic yet, but do we have an idea of how much smaller, uh, those social circles have gotten? Like what kind of chance we have to have those conversations?
Hannah Seo: Right. Absolutely. Um, There was an article posted in the Harvard Business Review, um, a little while back. And the authors for that report said that immediately after the start of the pandemic, our personal and professional circles, um, decreased by quite a large margin. I believe for women, it was about 16%. And then for men, it was even more, um, their personal and professional circles decreased by 30%. So it does, and it makes sense, right. You know, in your day to day commute, pre-pandemic, you know, you might say something casual to someone on [00:08:00] public transportation, then you might, you know, greet a doorman or two. And then, you know, you might have conversations with someone in an elevator, at the water cooler.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Hannah Seo: And then you are fully in your office. And, you know, you talk to whoever you have meetings with. Um, but now the people you’re conversing with are really the people that you schedule meetings with and no one else. And so all of that, all of that extra communication is completely cut out. So only on task, only work-based conversations are happening at the moment.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can you forcibly change that? Can you schedule small talk? I tried, full disclosure, um, this morning we had our weekly, uh, Big Story meeting and I hit record and tried to force some small talk on our team. And, uh, it was just. It was super awkward, but can, can you find a way to actually make it work?
Hannah Seo: Oh man. And this was the big question that I pose to, you know, all the experts that I spoke to for this piece, you know, how do you, how do you remedy this? Is there a [00:09:00] way to kind of create a small talk facsimile from home with, you know, either strangers or coworkers and the answer by and large was: it is so hard. And, you know, it’s so ironic because small talk is something we do almost mindlessly. And so the fact that it’s this thing that we do so mindlessly on autopilot, you know, every day, just, without thought. The fact that that is so hard to replicate is, is kind of ironic.
Um, one of the researchers I spoke to Andrew Guydish, he said, he’s the one who defines it as off task communication. And so when you schedule a call for small talk, you have turned small talk into a task.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right!
Hannah Seo: And that defeats the whole purpose!
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And it’s very strange because these are often the people, I’m saying this in my case, but I’m assuming it, it basically applies to everybody who has a remote, uh, office job at this point. These are the people who I would spend my days making small talk with when we were all in the same office, right? And it would be [00:10:00] completely natural.
Hannah Seo: It’s hard to kind of surmount that, that barrier of awkwardness, that initial barrier of awkwardness, especially because, you know, scheduling a call, a Zoom call, a phone call, even, even just texting someone for something that you’ve noticed in the world, it feels like quite a big step. I don’t know why this is, but inherently, it just feels like it’s a big thing to do for someone, especially if you don’t know them very well.
So, um, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was actually, um, finishing up my master’s degree and, um, when we switched to online classes, at the end of the class, I wanted to talk to people about, you know, the bow tie that the professor was wearing or, um, a joke that someone made.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right!
Hannah Seo: Um, but it’s hard when you don’t feel like you’re, you’re that close, like that you’re close enough to kind of text them or call them afterwards to mention those things.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Hannah Seo: But if you’re in person, you know, it’s very easy to just say like, “Oh, how about that bow tie?”
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And that leads to a [00:11:00] five minute conversation about bow ties and then everybody feels like, uh, we’re friendly.
Hannah Seo: Exactly, exactly. And then that builds that connection, you know, to have potentially larger, more important conversations down the line.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So here’s a question then, if small talk is so important, why do so many of us claim to dislike it or claim that it wastes time?
Hannah Seo: Yeah, that is such a good question. And, um, I did ask a bunch of experts about this, and I think that a large part of this comes down to possibly having a misunderstanding about what small talk is and what it can be for you. Because small talk, like most things, small talk is not a monolith, right? It’s not just about the weather. It’s not just about, you know, hi, how are you? You can really make small talk on whatever it is you want to talk about, you know, especially if you’re passionate about a niche activity, um, or, you know, you just have a joke that you want to try out on someone. You can say those things to a stranger and it will probably make them happy [00:12:00] to hear something like that.
You know, it’s not, I think most people have this, um, idea about small talk and they’ve convinced themselves that it is painful and boring. And so when they approach small talk, they can’t really break out of that cycle of just, you know, the typical one to three questions that we usually ask each other.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Is there a way, um, for many of the people that you talk to, to actually do small talk right during a pandemic? I know, uh, you know, I gave you the example of the butcher, uh, and, and you made a really good point that it feels like if you’re sticking around to talk to someone unnecessarily, like that’s a risk now, um. What’s a good way to make small talk in a pandemic?
Hannah Seo: I think, um, when talking to my friends and to other people, I think a popular one is, you know, if you have a dog or if you see a dog on the street, you know.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Oh, that’s a good one.
Hannah Seo: People love to use pets as a, as an icebreaker, just, [00:13:00] you know, talking about the dog, wanting, asking to maybe pet the dog and then that can maybe lead to a conversation about the dog. You know, people like to talk about animals.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When you spoke to researchers about this, did you get into the point you sort of mentioned at the beginning, like whether our small talk skills will have atrophied during this and we’ll have to like learn to build up those muscles again?
Hannah Seo: A hundred percent. Absolutely. I do feel, pre pandemic, I felt that I was perhaps at my, at my best when it came to interacting with strangers. And then, um, as I was even interviewing, um, experts for this piece, I, you know, I told them, I think that all of my skills have just gone down the drain. What do I do? How can I get over this anxiety to talk to strangers again when I previously was so adept at this? And they just said, you know, small talk is a muscle. It is something that you, um, you have to build up that skill, but it’s also like muscle memory.
One of the researchers said, you know, that she was [00:14:00] very optimistic that people would remember, um, down the line after a period of time, they would remember once again, how to interact with strangers, because the thing is, is that the people around us in this world are not going away anytime soon. As soon as we go outside, as soon as all of us go outside, we will have no choice but to interact with each other. And so that skill will just build up right back up again, like with no time, no problem. And it will feel awkward at first, but once we get over those growing pains, it will be so rewarding.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: This is my last question. And I’m only, like, half joking. Do you think that just because there’s this sort of innate need in all of us that, even though it’ll be awkward, we might be headed for a kind of small-talk Renaissance where we all like, just want to talk to strangers without masks on as soon as it’s possible? And like, we cut each other slack because of it?
Hannah Seo: You know what I really hope so. I hope that people will be just open and ready and willing and wanting to talk [00:15:00] to each other, because I want to be part of those conversations, truly. Like I want to talk about everything from, you know, people’s niche hobbies that they’ve picked up during the pandemic to, you know, the, the difficulties of wearing outside clothes again, you know, I want to be part of all those conversations. And so I hope that other people are also, you know, ready to bring those conversations to the world.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Hannah, thank you so much for this. It was a ton of fun, and fascinating.
Hannah Seo: Yeah, thanks so much.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Hannah Seo wrote about small talk for The Walrus. That was The Big Story, for more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter, just chat with us, let us know how you’re doing, ask about your local sports team. We’re at @TheBigStoryFPN. You can also talk to us anytime via email, hard to make small talk via email, you can try any way, thebigstorypodcast, all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. We are also in every single [00:16:00] podcast player on this earth, at least I think so. If you find one without us, as always, let us know, we’ll be there in a day or a week.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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