How are you? Crazy weather, eh? What’s new at work? The family okay? Any plans this weekend?

We engage in it all the time. Yet small talk can get a bad rap.

At the University of Arizona, one study connected more substantive conversations with happiness. Researchers wired subjects with a sound-activated recorder. For four days, the device recorded 30 seconds of sound every 12.5 minutes. Coders divided all the conversations as trivial or meaningful. The researchers also measured the happiness of the subjects, based on self-reporting and reports from several of their friends.

The results? The happiest participants had twice as many substantive conversations as the unhappiest participants, and one-third as much small talk.

Consequential banter can be rewarding, of course. Still, small talk isn’t quite the conversational equivalent of empty calories. That chit chat can is a valuable social lubricant.

A way to be likable and positive

For a study at Harvard Business School, people who didn’t know each other were paired and asked to have a 15-minute conversation. Researchers directed one person in each pair to ask the other person either a lot of questions (nine or more) or just a few (four or less).

Afterwards, the participants reported on how much they liked their conversational partner. The people who asked more questions during the small talk were perceived as more likable.

In another study, by a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, people were stopped on their way to a coffee shop. Half the customers were asked to chat with their barista, half to simply order. The chatty customers later said that their coffee shop visit generated higher positive emotions.

We typically have dozens of interactions throughout the day, with colleagues, family, friends and strangers alike. Many of these result in deep and significant conversations, which can add to our sense of well-being. So can our throwaway conversations, in and of themselves or by laying the groundwork for more profound connections.

Either way, there’s nothing small about such talk.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

October 11, 2017

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