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Why small talk is so excruciating

Research shows that small talk is no small thing.

Awkward silence.
Awkward silence.

This essay was originally published in 2015 and has been lightly updated.

I hate small talk. Hate it.

And when I say I hate it, what I really mean is I'm abysmal at it. Just a total failure.

Here's how I experience small talk. Say I find myself interacting with a sales clerk, meeting someone at a party or conference, bumping into a neighbor on the street, any situation that calls for chitchat. The minute the interaction begins, something inside me — I'd call it a "thought," but it's deeper than that, physical almost — wants to get out of it. My fight-or-flight instincts kick in. It's like the somatic equivalent of white noise, louder and louder the longer the interaction goes on. It doesn't take long before it's deafening and I break it off, often in less-than-smooth ways.

The weird thing is, it's not that I have some general aversion to talking to people. I love talking to people! Anyone who has ever gotten drunk with me can attest to that. And I don't have generalized social anxiety. I'm perfectly comfortable in a group situation, or speaking before a crowd, both of which terrify many people. It's not people in general, or social situations in general, but specifically one-on-one small talk that is the issue.

The problem, of course, is that small talk precedes big talk in the normal course of human affairs. Most people feel the need to get comfortable with one another before they jump into the deep end of serious conversation or ongoing friendship. Which means if you hate and avoid small talk, you are also, as a practical matter, cutting yourself off from lots of meaningful social interaction, which is a bummer. Also, research shows that more frequent small talk, even among those who identify as introverts, makes people happier. Also, despite recent advances in technology, small talk remains an unavoidable part of many basic life tasks.

So it would be nice to be better at small talk, or at least to understand why I'm so horrible at it. Let's take a quick look at the research.

Researchers realize that small talk is no small thing

For all its ubiquity, small talk hasn't come in for a ton of academic study. The first theoretical account is generally traced to anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, in his 1923 essay "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages." He noted that a great deal of talk "does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas" but instead "serves to establish bonds of personal union." Malinowski termed the exchange of such talk "phatic communion" ("phatic" from the Greek phatos, for "spoken"). It is speech as social bonding rather than communication.

Malinowski obviously thought of this as a lesser form of speech, describing it as "purposeless expressions of preference or aversions, accounts of irrelevant happenings, [and] comments on what is perfectly obvious." (Sounds like Twitter!)

Often, he said, it was merely a way to fill silence.

... to a natural man, another man's silence is not a reassuring factor, but, on the contrary, something alarming and dangerous. ... The modern English expression, 'Nice day today' or the Melanesian phrase, 'Whence comest thou?' are needed to get over the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence.

For decades thereafter, small talk retained its reputation as the lowest form of speech, mere space filler to ward off silence, little worthy of respect or serious study.

In the 1970s, however, sociolinguistics became more attuned to the everyday forms of speech that, after all, constitute the bulk of our verbal communication. And feminist sociolinguistics in particular noted that a dismissive attitude toward speech that establishes and maintains relationships — as opposed to task-oriented or informational speech — was of a piece with patriarchal disrespect for traditionally female roles. Think of the derogatory implications of the term "gossip," which is, after all, social talk about social dynamics.

But the implications of the feminist critique go beyond that. In her introduction to a 2010 collection of academic essays on small talk, scholar Justine Coupland writes:

What primarily emerges from feminist critiques is the fact that western societies have whole-heartedly accepted that communication is in fact value-gradable, on a scale from most-to-least authentic, or most-to-least valid. ... Whether or not "real talk" has been held to be a man's exclusive domain is, from this perspective, less significant than the fact that an evaluative public conception of communication itself is strongly in place. Real talk is talk that "gets stuff done," where "stuff" does not include "relational stuff."

In modern sociolinguistics, there's been a great deal of scholarly exploration of "social language" and the many situations in which small talk plays an important binding role.

Malinowski was wrong — small talk is not just important for those seeking companionship (or avoiding silence). It’s also important in a whole range of social, commercial, and professional settings. It weaves and reweaves the social fabric, enacting and reinforcing social roles.

Think of the different varieties of small talk between doctor and patient, vendor and customer, employer and employee. Each has its own rhythms and rules. And of course the character of small talk differs from place to place, culture to culture. For example, silence, contra Malinowski, is not viewed as threatening or uncomfortable in all cultures.

Speech says things, but it also does things

We need not get too far in the weeds. At a general level, it's simply important to remember that every speech act operates on two levels. On one level, it communicates information or ideas. This is the semantic content of the speech, i.e., what the words mean.

On another level, talking is a social behavior. Every speech act is an act, meant not only to communicate something but to do something: reassure, acknowledge, nurture, enjoin, reject, dominate, encourage, or just fill awkward silence. We can think of this as the social function of a speech act. Unlike semantic content, social function cannot be understood in isolation, just by examining the words. Social function depends entirely on context, on tone and body language, on the interpersonal roles being played, on historical and environmental cues. It only makes sense relative to context.

All speech acts operate on both levels, but the ratio of social function to semantic content differs along a continuum. In some circumstances, speech acts take on an almost entirely communicative role: a surgeon narrating her surgery; a surveillance pilot describing troop movements; a university lecturer describing an episode of history.

But cases of purely communicative speech are more the exception than the rule, found in specialized professional or academic settings. As sociolinguists have come to appreciate, in day-to-day human interaction speech is a social, relational behavior. That's why everyday patterns and rituals of speech are worthy of study; they reveal the social fabric.

Small talk falls on the other end of the continuum; it is speech that prioritizes social function. Think of this exchange: "How's it going?" "Oh, pretty good." There's not zero semantic content in there — presumably "pretty good" excludes "dying at this exact moment," so that's some information. But the primary function of those speech acts is social, not to say something but to do something, i.e., make contact, reaffirm shared membership in a common tribe (whatever it may be), express positive feelings (and thus lack of threat), show concern, and so forth. These are not unimportant things, not "small" at all, really, but they are different from communicating semantic content.

Small talk — particularly in its purest form, phatic communion — is a context in which language has a ritualistic quality. The communication of ideas or information is secondary, almost incidental; the speech is mainly meant to serve the purpose of social bonding. It asks and answers familiar questions, dwells of topics of reliable comity, and stresses fellow feeling rather than sources of disagreement.

This helps explain the ubiquity of sports in small talk, especially male small talk. Sporting events are a simulation of conflict with no serious consequences, yet they generate enormous amounts of specific information. They are a content generator for small talk, easing the work of communion.

To "talk well" in the social sense, to be adept at sending the correct social signals, is a different skill than "talking well" in the communicative sense. And the two skills do not always go together. Everyone knows someone extremely verbal and eloquent but socially inept, or someone intuitively at ease in almost every social situation but inarticulate beyond that.

And then everybody knows that rare person who has seemingly mastered both, who can send all the right social signals while producing speech that also has interesting semantic content. I am not one of those people; watching them operate is, for me, like watching a magic show.

I know what I'm saying, but not what I'm doing

I am far more comfortable with the communicative role of language than the social role. And over the course of my life, my choices have reinforced that skills mismatch. I read more than I talk to people. I write more than I talk to people. I generally avoid small talk whenever possible. 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 (er, metaphorically speaking).

Also, it should be noted, privileged white males have the luxury of remaining ignorant of subtle social signals; less-privileged groups live and die by them. Small talk is not so small to them.

Anyway, small talk engages the muscles and habits I have least developed. The functions of language I understand are backgrounded while the functions I don't understand are foregrounded. The criteria by which one chooses what to say shift from "what's true; what's most interesting" to "what lubricates the exchange; what sets people at ease." In effect, it's like trying to speak a foreign language — confoundingly, a foreign language that uses the same words my language uses, as though I'm using a familiar tool for an unfamiliar task.

When I meet someone, I'm trying to a) maintain eye contact, which feels like holding an exposed wire with low-level current running through it, and b) think of things to say that convey the correct social signals, even though I'm not certain what the correct social signals are, while c) ensuring that none of the things I say bring up any emotionally fraught or controversial topics, even though those are the topics I care most about, and d) concealing the fact that the inside of my head is a haze of white noise and I desperately want to escape the interaction. It's like patting your head while rubbing your belly ... while tap dancing and reciting the alphabet backward.

Those of you who do it fluidly, without even thinking about it, should pause for a moment of gratitude. It is an important skill, one that many people lack and are never taught. And if you ever meet me out on the street, just go ahead and ask me about politics or religion or the meaning of life — anything but sports or the weather. We'll get along famously.

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