Why Small Talk Matters

Imagine this …

You’re on a first date (yay, you). You meet at a local coffee shop, exchange greetings, and then sit down at a table across from each other.

You make eye contact and smile at each other. But your smiles are laced with apprehension. Because that moment is upon you — the moment when you have to start an actual, real-life conversation with each other.

How will it go? Who will go first? What will they say?

Lucky for you, your date decides to take the plunge, with this:

“Such nice weather we’ve been getting …”

With that, you muster up every ounce of self-control to keep yourself from rolling your eyes.

Ugh, really? Starting with the weather? How trite. How superficial. How unoriginal and unclever.*

How fucking boring.

Right?

Look, I know how much people hate small talk. I get it. Small talk is trivial, meaningless, whatever. Yet, small talk serves a vital purpose when you’re on a date — especially a first date.

So yeah, you just stop rolling your eyes now.

In fact, small talk serves a vital purpose with anyone you’ve just met, and it has nothing to do with the topic itself. That’s the biggest misconception people have about small talk. They think it’s dumb to waste time discussing superficial matters. But then, they’re missing the whole point of the act in the first place.

No, small talk isn’t about the content. It’s about the act itself of conversing with another person.

Small talk lets you feel out a person you’ve just met. It’s a way to dip your toe into a potentially frigid pool. When you dip your toe into a pool, you’re obviously not doing anything even close to swimming. But, it helps you get started down that path. It gives you an idea of how you want to tackle this pool. Should you dive right in? Or should you wade in bit by bit? Do you even want to swim at all in said pool?

Similarly, small talk starts you down the path towards an actual conversation. It gives you the chance to learn about another person bit by bit. And throughout this gradual process, you’re making a continual stream of tiny decisions whether or not to escalate the chatter to more personal or even intimate matters eventually.

That’s the key word here: eventually. The process of getting to know someone always takes time. It’s something you have to build up to.

I’m sure you know what “TMI” stands for. “Ugh, I wish you hadn’t shared that. That was too much information for me to handle.”

Well, TMI is always contextual. Any piece of information you share will have its time and place. There will almost always be an occasion when something you want to say — no matter how insightful, personal, private, or even shocking — will be appropriate.

And the secret to a successful conversation is figuring out the appropriate moment for such a comment — for every comment you may want to make. Small talk lets you build up to these moments. Without it, you’d have no idea when the other person is ready for you to escalate the conversation.

Having said that, I bet many of you either 1) still disagree on the utility of small talk, or 2) think I came up with a dumb analogy, because you’re not one to dip your toe in the pool. No, that’s for wimps. You dive off the deep end. You don’t believe in hesitation. You tackle that pool head-on, bro.

And that’s where I would say, “Nope. Your reasoning is exactly why my analogy stands.”

Look, I get that you may be the dive-off-the-deep-end type. I get that you may hate small talk, that you prefer your conversations to have substance. I get it, because I used to be that guy.

Here’s the problem: Not everyone is like you. You may be the off-the-deep-end type, but the person you’re talking to may be much more guarded or timid. And that’s something you have to respect. Because comfortable and connected conversations have to be consensual. If one person isn’t ready to get personal when the other person escalates, that is the surest way to create an uncomfortable interaction.

That is the surest way to make sure they don’t want to talk to you again … let alone date you.

So remember that. When it comes to conversation, it’s not just you. If you choose to dive into the deep end of the conversational pool, you’re not doing it alone. You’re dragging someone else in with you — someone else who may have preferred to dip their toe into the shallow end first.

Would you drag someone into a pool unwillingly?

Of course not (hopefully).

If you force someone into the deep end of a conversation, if you forgo the small talk and skip instantly to a serious topic before the other person is ready or willing, do you think they’ll like you very much?

Of course not (definitely).

And that’s why small talk matters.


*Assuming your date is not a meteorologist.

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