“Jane, It’s great to see you, how are you? you look wonderful; it’s been so long!”

“You’re looking pretty good too David”.

“How was your journey?”

“Fine, no problems at all.”

“It’s great weather isn’t it? I can hardly believe this is Belgium!”

“Indeed, it’s so hot. How’s your Mother?”

“Much better, let me take your bags”.

With this conversation taken from two people meeting for the first time in many years I would like to try and show what really happens in the kind verbal communication we commonly call ‘small talk’. I want to do this because I believe that it is important understand exactly when a conversation is ‘small talk’ and when it has progressed into a conversation designed to share very specific information. The ability to balance between the two, for all humans is important but is vital in a change management context.

The conversation between David and Jane maybe ‘small talk’ but there is big emotion being communicated here, way beyond the words themselves.  They are simply aural transmissions while David and Jane experience great happiness in being back in each other’s company. Each are speaking statements without any real intent or desire for an answer. Let’s take it line by line to explain better what I mean…

David sees Jane across the station forecourt, he waves and smiles, drawing attention to himself, Jane smiles and tries to wave back, even though she’s heavily loaded with bags. When they get close enough for vocal communication, David opens with:

“Jane, It’s great to see you, how are you? you look wonderful, it’s been so long!” By using her name, David is reaffirming (mostly to himself) that it really is her. He is excited to see her again. Instantly and without thought he comes out with “It’s great to see you, how are you? you look wonderful, it’s been so long!”  He is expressing a personal interest in her wellbeing (so that she will desire to stay talking with him).  He throws in “how are you?” which he immediate follows with “you look wonderful; it’s been so long!” Here David’s brain is overloaded with incoming data; making out the obvious changes in her appearance and (in this case) her general aging. The small talk he is using is designed to keep her interested in him and the conversation.

Jane replies, not with an answer, she knows that these are not real questions that require an answer. She is happy to be in David’s company too so she comes up with a reaffirming statement to ensure the conversation keeps going “You’re looking pretty good too David”. And so the conversation continues, both making statements, asking questions, not expecting answers and not really interested in the subject itself but rather the pleasure they feel being together.  And this is exactly what small talk is.  It is the language we use when we desire to stay in another person’s company, where the content of the conversation is secondary to the emotional connection that is trying to be maintained.

Imagine if Jane had no desire to spend any time talking with David it would have gone

“Jane, It’s great to see you, how are you? you look wonderful; it’s been so long!”

“You’re looking pretty good too David but I am very sorry I need to grab a taxi; I am in a terrible hurry. Good to see you too though!”

Us humans are very social animals; we like company.  And because in western culture silence is not normal between two people in a normal social context, we invented a language simply to fill in the time that we want to share together.  And as we do not like upsetting each other, we invented a small talk as a way of controlling the length of our engagement, hence Jane’s … ”I need to grab a taxi, I am in a terrible hurry. Good to see you too though!”

Have a good week!

Harley