Small talk is no small matter

Posted by on July 05, 2011

Today we say good-bye to green English and hello to small talk. During the month of July, we’ll be exploring small talk in English, starting with an introduction by regular contributor Stan Carey, freelance writer, editor and blogger.

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For many of us, small talk is a daily occurrence. We engage in it with family, friends, loved ones and strangers. It happens at home, at work, on the move, and wherever we encounter other people. It’s no surprise, then, that our attitudes to it are very mixed. Some people take pleasure in it; some resent or even detest it. Others engage in it without feeling strongly about it or paying it much heed.

When we meet a stranger, for example at a business meeting, on a social occasion, or in a casual encounter, small talk serves a useful phatic function. It helps us tune in to other people’s accents and dialects, and to get used to their presence and the ways they express themselves. Before moving on to more contentious topics, such as finance or politics, we will have spent time sharing images and idioms and agreeing light-heartedly about various uncontroversial matters.

If the context is business, talking about travel and accommodation is apt to be both interesting and potentially useful to the parties involved. We can share tips, learn about one another’s tastes and habits, and bond over common frustrations and experiences.

The weather is perhaps the star of small talk. Comments about the weather can even replace greetings, so instead of “hello” we might remark to someone, in passing: “Grand day out”, or “Lovely evening.” In Ireland, we are blessed with what I would euphemistically call “interesting weather”. Never mind four seasons in one day: some days we are blessed with eight seasons by mid-afternoon. It is predictably unpredictable, and this variability makes it ideal for idle chit-chat. We need never tire of the tendency to talk about it.

Weather talk is neutral, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the suitability of subjects and modes of address varies considerably from culture to culture. So it’s worth doing a bit of research before continuing your small-talk habits in an unfamiliar culture. Small talk might be “informal conversation about things that are not important”, but this does not imply that small talk itself is not important!

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Comments (7)
  • Hello Stan:
    In the last job I held before retirement (a government position), the rules of smalltalk were inculcated in minutes. Remembering the modern strictures regarding male-female interplay in the workplace, only certain subjects were allowed by tacit agreement. They included: the weather, the job (were they going to cut staff, take a tough stand at salary/benefits talktime), where do you live, how is your commute? and when are you planning to retire. Anything beyond those subjects was taboo, such as complimenting a woman on her dress or hairstyle or asking about the weekend. I bring this up because I think, from my own observation, that this sociolect is elastic, but only to a point, regarding vocation, avocation and situation.

    Posted by Marc B. Leavitt on 5th July, 2011
  • Thanks for your comment, Marc. Restrictions like the ones you describe are understandable, but in a way unfortunate. Employers have a responsibility to minimise the possibility of staff being made to feel uncomfortable, but in doing so might take the life out of conversation. I’m sure many people would graciously receive casual compliments about their appearance, so long as the remarks weren’t obviously leering or inappropriate. A friendly “Nice haircut” or “I like your T-shirt” are unlikely to offend anyone, while “Where do you live?” could come across as a very sinister question in some contexts or from some parties.

    Posted by Stan on 6th July, 2011
  • […] so a couple of my posts are on this subject. I used to dislike small talk; I don’t anymore. In “Small talk is no small matter” I make some general remarks about chit chat and its uses: [S]mall talk serves a useful phatic […]

    Posted by Dialects and dimpsy doddermen « Sentence first on 4th August, 2011
  • Stan, I remember a quote by a comedian who said something to the effect that during the Samuel Johnson days big men enjoyed small talk, today we have small men enjoying big talk. Without being sexist, I think the concept of small talk is different for men and women – this is just my theory, mind! Men don’t engage in small talk to any great effect (unless we include talk about football and politics), whereas women can float between small talk and deeply meaningful conversation without any sense of discrepancy!

    Posted by Elaine Coyne on 13th August, 2011
  • Hi Elaine, thanks for your comment. That’s an interesting point about gender difference in relation to small talk. There may be something to it for certain subsets of both sexes, but I’m not convinced it’s a significant difference. I’ve met enough men who can small talk with the best of them! And I think they’re just as prone to ‘philosophical’ small talk. But maybe women have a slight edge in general small talk ability (if indeed there’s any way to meaningfully measure such a thing).

    Posted by Stan on 14th August, 2011
  • Hi, Stan! I’m an English teacher in Finland and I have noticed during my teaching years that there are big differences in different countries and cultures in small talk. I lived 8 years in Africa and 7 years in various countries in Europe and everywhere the practises and understanding of what is convenient and acceptable as topic is diffrent. Take Finland, for example: we Finns are well-known as introverted and quiet, even shy people. That maybe so, but once we get talking we talk about everything and anything! I would say that – at least when it comes to women – that there are no forbidden subjects, not even between strangers. When I teach my students (I’m running a language school) I have the understanding that Americans and Brits have several taboos (religion, salaries, politics, the looks of people etc.), but is the world changing and the scope of acceptable topics expanding even in these countries? What can you say without being offensive? It would be nice to know how it is in other English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada, Ireland… and is it the same in all the states of the USA? How is the weather -by the way – in your country? Here it’s been fine, almost tropical, but now it’s drizzling and signs of autumn are in the air.

    Posted by Erja Mononen on 16th August, 2011
  • Hi, Erja! Thanks for your visit and interesting comment. The weather here (west of Ireland) is changeable, as usual – this morning was warm and summery; now it’s overcast and more autumnal, with the possibility of showers later. Never a dull moment in the Irish skies!
    There are useful articles here and here that explore small talk differences between the UK and the US. When it comes to different countries’ and cultures’ attitudes to small talk, there may be general truths but few absolute ones.
    As well as subject matter, tone can also be helpful: smiles, jokes and positive comments are encouraging signs, and if someone really doesn’t want to talk about something, they simply won’t. It’s impossible to foresee everyone’s sensitive points, but avoiding topics likely to provoke controversy (such as politics and religion) is probably a good idea when talking with someone who seems liable to take these matters very seriously. Once a discussion tackles taboo subjects, of course, it’s no longer small talk.

    Posted by Stan on 17th August, 2011
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