What Is the Purpose of Small Talk?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Fine Art of Small Talk" by Debra Fine. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is small talk so important? Are there benefits to mastering small talk?

The need for small talk comes up more than many of us would like—at work, with neighbors, on dates, and even with family members. So, whether you like it or not, you should learn to get better at the art of small talk.

In this article, we’ll explore the purpose of small talk generally and in business relationships.

Why Small Talk?

In The Fine Art of Small Talk, Debra Fine explains the purpose of small talk and teaches you to confidently converse with strangers. She argues that if you’re not comfortable and confident in engaging in conversation, you’ll miss out on all manner of social, professional, and romantic connections. Further, mastering small talk can reduce your anxiety, boost your confidence, foster friendships, and enhance your leadership capabilities.

(Shortform note: In addition, avoiding small talk isolates you socially and emotionally, which leads to anxiety, fearfulness, and defensiveness. In contrast, making small talk with strangers and acquaintances fosters a sense of community belonging, which helps you feel comfortable and confident in the spaces you visit and inhabit.)

Fine is a once-inept conversationalist whose anxiety around conferences and industry meetings led her to make a serious effort to improve her conversation skills. In the years since, she’s started her titular business and has been teaching the Fine Art of Small Talk all around America.

Avoiding Small Talk

According to Fine, the opportunity for casual conversations crops up many times each day—with neighbors, kids, and coworkers, and at social events, business lunches, and even the local supermarket. When we avoid small talk, she explains, we minimize the number of deep conversations we get to have in these settings. Furthermore, Fine says, we risk giving the impression that we’re cold, disinterested, or rude.

(Shortform note: Fine’s assertion that avoiding small talk can appear rude may seem a little unfair if you’re shy: Shy people avoid conversation not because they’re rude, but because they feel anxious or awkward. They want to connect, but they don’t know how. Unfortunately, though, others may not realize that shyness fuels this behavior: They might just assume that you’re rude or aloof. This is why it’s so important for shy people who want to connect to get out of their comfort zones and try to overcome their shyness.)

Small Talk in Business

According to the author, small talk is especially important in business for a number of reasons. First, engaging your customers in small talk shows them they’re doing business with a “real” person rather than a stilted salesperson. Second, if you’re good at small talk, you’ll make others feel included, valued, and comfortable. You’ll establish a rapport, and customers will prefer doing business with you because they feel you’re warm, caring, and friendly. 

(Shortform note: Perhaps most importantly, small talk is valuable in dealing with customers because it fast-tracks your relationship to shared amiability. Researchers say small talk synchronizes the level of intimacy felt by each party and signals friendly intentions. In short, it’s a simple way to make others believe you’ll prioritize their comfort, safety, and—particularly critically in a customer relationship—their needs.)

Similarly, Fine notes that as a manager, bookending meetings with pleasant small talk allows you to more comfortably broach difficult subjects and end the meeting on a positive note. Your employees will feel much better receiving criticism if, through your small talk, they get the impression you care about them as much as you care about their performance.

(Shortform note: Fine highlights the importance of managerial small talk in a business setting, but not all small talk is appropriate or helpful in this context. For example, your employees are likely to resent—rather than appreciate—hearing about your luxury vacation or your new expensive car. Indeed, the Harvard Business Review suggests that on a one on one basis, small talk between managers and employees is best focused on the employee’s career—his or her needs, goals, and opportunities.)

What Is the Purpose of Small Talk?

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Fine Art of Small Talk summary:

  • Why we need small talk and why we shouldn't avoid it
  • How to appear confident and engaging in any context
  • How to break the ice with strangers and keep the conversation going

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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