Photo by Matthew Westman
“Hey! How’s it going? A bit warm today, isn’t it?”
With a string of a few words and a smile, the small talk begins anew.
Small talk is not one of my favorite pastimes and I certainly thought I had experienced the worst of it after all those “getting-to-know-you” questions freshman year. You know the ones I’m referring to: major, hometown, dorm, study abroad plans, etc.
I naively assumed that attending college on a small campus would mean less small talk. After all, there are only so many people you can get to know, right? Wrong.
Pepperdine’s “forever freshman” phenomenon means we are all constantly meeting new people, making introductions and engaging in the all-too-well known small talk shakedown. Whether you are a first-year new to campus, a sophomore studying abroad (or staying in Malibu), a junior returning home to a new group of people, or a senior getting to know a new freshman class or reconnecting with old friends, it’s inevitable. Pepperdine’s student population is constantly shifting and fluxing, creating the perfect breeding ground for these quick conversations filled with small details you are bound to forget.
Traveling to London to study abroad this year put me in the unique position of having to start over from square one with many people I somehow never met. While trying to fall back asleep on one of my jet-lag ridden nights, I came to a realization: Small talk isn’t actually that bad, and it’s definitely not pointless.
Each small conversation I could recall helped fill in just a little bit more of each individual’s personality. Even though I did not know that much about them, the important thing was they were no longer strangers to me. If anything, at this moment at some ungodly hour of the morning, I was able to see past the social awkwardness of small talk and view it as a way of opening doors and creating relationships.
It’s a struggle and it can be awkward. Very few people really enjoy it, me included. But it’s important. Even if the act of small talk itself is a bit frustrating and the content of the conversations seems shallow and inconsequential, the reasoning behind it is what really counts.
When people attempt small talk, it is about reaching out to someone, and trying to get to know them better. Even if you only learn a few of the things they did today or plan to do in the future. You may only learn some basic facts about them: they have x number of siblings and a dog, and they hate hot weather. These trivial details help fill in a picture of who they are, and that’s something. That’s a start.
Actually, according to a study by Andrew Steptoe of University College London, small talk may help combat isolation and loneliness as well as extend a person’s life. In a pool of 6,500 participants age 52 or older, 21.9 percent of participants considered highly socially isolated died within seven years of the study, while those who had some contact with others, even small conversations, fared much better at 12.3 percent. The study found that social contact – even if it’s not the kind born of deep emotional connection – is extremely important to living a healthy life.
So small talk may not just be a short and shallow conversation that you have with people you don’t know too well just to fill the awkward silence. Talking to each other, even if it is about small things like seemingly random personal facts, shows that we have an interest in each other as people – an interest in getting to know each other so we can move past the trite nature of small talk and turn it into something deeper. Or, at the very least, it conveys an interest in being connected to one another as human beings, if only for just a few minutes.
I don’t mean to say that small talk should be lauded or embraced. I still think it is, at the very least, a bit annoying and that’s fine. But I do think we should change how we think about it as a social phenomenon; as a stepping stone to bigger things in addition to a quick way to fill the silence.
Maybe, instead of focusing on how shallow and superficial small talk can be, we might be better off embracing it and spending our time thinking of better opening lines than, “Lovely weather we’re having.”
Follow the Graphic on Twitter: @PeppGraphic