The secret science behind the power of small talk

Creating conversations is the way we build relationships, so where would our conversations at work, networking, or elsewhere be without small conversations? Would we find our best friend, special person or esteemed business partner? No slight teasing in between Danger! champion Amy Schneider and Ken Jennings on the quiz show, did we even know that Schneider stepped up with his own “pep talks” while listening to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” before each game?

We often overlook the importance of this deep-rooted but common part of our social fabric. But small conversations inspire much more than trivial chatter, often triggering some of our most valuable relationships. From polite chats to help start a stressful meeting to building powerful bridges to networking events, small conversations have always been an important “social lubricant” that builds trust and relationships across cultures – even more so for professionals who have started careers after graduation.

Studies show that small talk is responsible for almost one third of our speech, even if some cultures participate in it more than others. It’s hard to believe that these initial preambles can have such an impact on character assessment or even on how we categorize relationships as friendships, work colleagues, or acquaintances. However, being guardians of our own conversations using small conversations allows us to take advantage of the dimensions of power relations, solidarity, formality, and function by using what linguists call topic management to guide conversations toward intended outcomes, such as business or networking.

We often think that the goal of our workplace conversations is to convey information; however, conversations also serve the purpose of maintaining relationships that arise from a deeper subset of linguistics called phatic communication. These synergistic forms of chatter complement social and cultural considerations, and do not just work on open dialogues. Consider the greeting “Let’s go to lunch sometime,” which doesn’t require a specific date (while the phantic phrase “How’s it going?” During the era of telecommuting in a pandemic may remain a failure). The greater purpose is to determine how sociolinguistics can help position our conversations outside the realm of uncertainty and toward lasting connections.

Yet a small conversation has the power to create or interrupt job, networking, and intercultural relationships. Going beyond utility conventions and deliberately spotting the semantics of conversations can lead to a new business deal or networking opportunity. In the business world, expertly crafted small conversations can be used as an icebreaker leading to the next business step, safe to get relationships back on track, or even simply as an agency to build relationships with partners before negotiations.

The science of small talk

You may be wondering why you sometimes feel like you know a person after just exchanging a few words. Familiarity has its roots in interpersonal synchronization, where speech rhythms, walking patterns, and even breathing coincide with those of others simply from our shared perceptions that we notice as we get to know each other.

Princeton University’s findings in the act of human communication and storytelling have uncovered a powerful phenomenon called “neural fusion,” where our brains are essentially synchronized during the act of storytelling. Researchers tracked audience members and storytellers through MRI machines and found that their brain waves synchronize during a powerful story, discovering that stories are one of our most powerful transcultural components of communication. Just imagine a networking situation where you quickly start a conversation with phrases like “Have you ever. . ., ”; “What if…”; And “Did you know that…”

Stories can be a lightning rod that amplifies our conversations, actively “synchronizing” our minds so that we share with each other not only meaning, but only human experience.

Based on our shared years of training high-impact language and communication business professionals as New York University professors and United Nations language and communication experts, we believe that everyone can connect with each other through creative, lesser-known small talk strategies and techniques. linguistics to create a more meaningful “small talk” that leads to the rewarding of a “big talk”. Access a small conversation by making a mind-to-mind connection with stories that:

  • Connect you with others for professional, social, or personal reasons (identify shared values ​​such as empathy, integrity, and honesty, and then build a story around it).
  • Illustrate a skill, method, or process important to personal growth (stories make memory easier as well Isaac Newton and the Apple).
  • Point out how to overcome a common challenge (think of strong decision-making moments in your life that have the potential to encourage your colleague to make similar decisions in their lives).

Where will the little story be in five years from now? The more important question is, how will small conversations create your future? In a world of constant connection, imagine small conversations as a spectrum in which you can focus your social and career prospects on success.

Whether you find yourself in the abyss of chatter about “jargon country” or looking for confidence to encourage your conversations in different cultures in an international “watercooler,” you realize that meaningful ways to build relationships begin by harmonizing our words, rhythms, and actions in patterned ways. Then see if you can connect small conversations with a greater purpose — because the greater purpose of networking, especially in a globalized society, is not just to make a sales or business presence, but to establish a connection between real human communication.


Dan Bullock is a language and communication instructor at the United Nations and a professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies. Raul Sanchez he is a clinical assistant professor of global communication and coordinator of the corporate program at the same school. They are co-authors How to communicate effectively with anyone, anywhere.


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