Small Talk – better for your health than Vitamin C?!

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine mentioned she’d heard a radio piece that revealed a surprising fact: small talk is good for you. [She also mentioned that she thought it’d be a good topic for a blog post; thanks, Francine!] I did some research (aka googling) and, lo and behold, it is indeed true: small talk is good for your health and well-being. It’s right up there with vitamin C, meditation, and Ativan.

The irony is that most of us never small talk in glowing terms, we’re more likely to complain about it.  We’re more likely to complain about people we don’t know saying seemingly meaningless and insincere things to us like “How are you today?” or “Have a nice day.” We’re cynical about their intentions. We’re more likely to think, “Why can’t that person just leave me alone to get on about my business?”  This thought seems to be particularly pronounced when seated for hours in an airplane!

Small talk may get a bad rap because we think of it as someone talking aimlessly without stopping, just filling dead air space. Saying that small talk is good for your health and brings happiness isn’t meant to imply that boring the person you’re chatting with by going on endlessly about trivia is going to make either of you happier.  It means that making the effort to connect – even with strangers – with a small, pleasant overture is good for both parties.  That initial small talk may lead to more substantial conversations or it may just be a one-off between two ships that passed in the night.  Regardless, positive interpersonal connections through small talk do indeed promote happiness and well-being.

The several articles that popped up when I googled “small talk good for you” came from a mix of health and business websites, including Forbes, health publications, and, believe it or not, Scientific American.  Some of the articles lamented the fact that small-talk interactions diminished significantly during the pandemic, to the detriment of our health.

From Forbes, Why small talk is anything but small:

The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘small talk’ as “conversation about things that are not important, often between people who do not know each other well.” Whether you love or loathe small talk, it’s not as “small” as you might think.

Our brains process loads of information during a conversation, but most of those informational inputs are non-verbal. It’s actually not the content of small talk that makes it significant. It’s everything else: tone, body language, rate of speech, emotional mood and more.

Small talk isn’t only productive within an office space. A study by psychologist Elizabeth Dunn discovered that quick social interactions at a coffee shop with a barista and its customers resulted in feelings of belonging and increased happiness. These positive feelings were achieved solely through reaping the benefits of smiling, making eye contact and holding a brief conversation with a stranger, all while ordering a simple cup of coffee.

SmallTalk-watercooler

From Discover Magazine, Why small talk is good for you:

Casual chats with people we encounter in our daily routine can go a long way toward relieving loneliness.

In a work setting, a chat with someone you barely know doesn’t even have to be particularly fruitful for it to affect your mood. In a study published this year, Jessica Methot, an organizational psychologist at Rutgers University, observed office employee conversations and found that a third of what people said every workday was chit-chat. These superficial, brief interactions helped stave off workplace loneliness, and did so in part because participants were reminded that they’re a visible part of the team. “Small talking is recognizing that you acknowledge someone’s presence,” Methot says.

The short interactions also pave the way for acquaintances to turn into work friends. Closer relationships with colleagues — even if work dominates discussions — help people find validation for frustrations and successes, as their coworkers are often the people in their lives with the best understandings of the ins and outs of the job. A better rapport with colleagues also allows people to show vulnerabilities in ways they may not with friends outside of work, as they can ask questions and show confusion about work matters with less fear of being judged, Methot says.

SmallTalk-devices

I was reminded of the positive impact of pleasant casual interactions this past week, when I happened to be in a bit of a funk. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I am fortunate to live in a friendly community where, for the most part, whether in stores or on trails people make eye contact, smile, and occasionally make small talk, even in passing. Well, when I was in this funk – very unusual for me – it took me some time to realize that I wasn’t responding to people’s smiles or to the welcoming words of store clerks and gym attendants the way I usually would. Nor was I initiating that behaviour.  After a few non-responsive encounters on my part, it dawned on me that not responding to these casual pleasantries was making me feel worse. And undoubtedly I wasn’t helping those people making the effort feel great either. I snapped out of my funk enough to rejoin the world of small talk, in other words, the exchange of pleasantries. And, you know what, being pleasant to strangers – exchanging a few words and a smile – helped my mood.  For me, the theory of small talk being good for my health works. It works very well indeed.

SmallTalk-Store

That having been said, last evening I came across an article – completely by chance – reporting that in Sweden small talk is frowned upon! Yes, when I subsequently googled “small talk Sweden” up popped a number of articles explaining that Swedish culture promotes avoidance of eye contact and small talk at all costs. The rule of thumb seems to be that if you can’t avoid eye contact and finding yourself being forced to make small talk, the weather is the only acceptable subject.  And keep it short, very short!

From Small Talk with Swedes 
SmallTalk-Swedish

So, the bottom line seems to be that small talk – making casual connections with strangers – is good for your health and happiness … unless you find yourself in Sweden. Or possibly in other countries whose cultures rule out eye contact.  Or big cities in most countries, where people are told to avoid eye contact or talking to strangers as a safety precaution.  That’s probably reasonable advice in big cities, but how sad to have to be advised to forego a proven way of finding happiness and feeling connected to the people around us. I’ll stick with the eye contact, smiles, and small-talk culture.

SmallTalk-QRcode

What about you? Do you find small talk improves your sense of well-being or are you thinking you’d be more comfortable in Sweden?! 😉

This entry was posted in Good for you, good for business, Odds and Ends and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Small Talk – better for your health than Vitamin C?!

  1. Wynne Leon says:

    Such an interesting post, Jane. I had never heard of small talk being good for us and love the articles you quote. I love chatting up grocery story workers, waitstaff and customer service reps. I’ve never thought of that as small talk before but I see why it’s in that category according to the definition.

    Glad that small talk helped you out of your unusual funk. Thanks for sharing this substantive post about small talk! 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Roy McCarthy says:

    I’ve found that casual interaction got easier once I was rid of the 9-5 office grind, which in itself demands a certain attitude to work which is difficult to switch out of. Trying to build a spreadsheet or understand a 30-page technical document doesn’t segue well into being light-hearted, empathic and smiley a minute later. But there’s little doubt that a smile, a few appropriate words, even a ‘have a nice day’ makes the world a slightly better place for all concerned.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. There’s little doubt that concentrating on spreadsheets and figures doesn’t go well with idle chitchat. In support of your concluding sentence, Roy, I’m pretty sure that your interactions when you’re volunteering at the historical society or interacting with casual running acquaintances help make their world a better place! 😊

      Liked by 2 people

  3. 9erick says:

    I have never enjoyed small talk but have noticed it lessens my feelings of loneliness.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yea for small talk, I love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Victoria says:

    Fascinating post and topic, Jane. I’m also happy to hear you’re feeling less funky. 😉 I find myself lifted up – so much – by casual and kind interactions with strangers. Whenever I’m feeling “off” I find the liberty of connecting in quick exchanges with strangers – little pleasantries and kindnesses – to be mood boosting. Gratitude boosting too. Life is good and I love that you’re debunking the notion that “small talk” is tedious, laborious. 😊😊😊

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Shelley Petley says:

    When I was a member of Powertalk (aka Toastmistress) we had a couple who joined. SHE had just become President of a business association and wanted help in leading meetings. HE was a techie and wanted to learn how to do small talk when he accompanied her to conferences. Win-win!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I can attest to the immeasurable benefits of small talk now, as I try to connect with people here in my new country. Great article!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Natalie. And what a stellar example of the value of small talk: establishing connections in a new location (across the ocean in a new country in your case!), not just at work.

      Like

  8. heimdalco says:

    Years ago someone stopped me in a department store & told me I had beautiful hair. I was startled but it made me feel good all day long. After that, if I see someone that I think has on a cool outfit or shoes or has a cute kid, I don’t hesitate to say so. After the shock, they always look pleased & maybe even grateful.

    I had a wonderful interaction about a week ago in a local grocery store with another woman shopper. It was after church & my husband wanted to just get what we came for & leave but I was “picking up a few other things.” The woman shopper sensed my frustration at my husband’s attempt at rushing me & said something funny to me about it & we both laughed out loud. We ran into each other 2 more times & both times we laughed. The last time I told her, “I really like you” & we laughed again. I haven’t forgotten her or that funny moment she & I shared. In the car my bewildered husband asked, “What were you & that woman saying about me?” I laughed again. Apparently he wasn’t all that impressed with our small talk … I loved this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. LA says:

    I sometimes engage in small talk, but on the whole I hate it. That being said, I love eavesdropping so in general hearing the small talk of others is tops on my list of favorite things

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. I don’t think that the kind of small talk being promoted for good health is something anyone would necessarily get anything out of eavesdropping on! I suppose there could be instances; the idea of the small talk in question is to foster simple pleasant connections between people who don’t know each other or don’t know each other well.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. OmniRunner says:

    My wife says I can talk to anyone. She cannot and my comfort in talking to anyone seems to annoy her.
    When you talk to a stranger it is usually small talk.
    If you are travelling you might ask if they know about a good place to eat or if they have been somewhere you are interested in.
    This summer I was in the San Antonio area for a business conference. I was there a few days early and did some sight seeing. I was alone, so I talked to all kinds of people and had very enjoyable conversations.
    Most people seem happy to engage in idle chit chat or to lend their expertise on something. It seems the vast majority of people are experts or know it alls about something. They can’t wait to tell you all about X, Y and Z.
    It’s usually pretty obvious when someone doesn’t want to engage.

    Now that we are all face down into our phones, I think small talk is more novel than it used to be. Maybe people have forgotten how to do it or how much fun it can be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know making small talk is more difficult for some than others, but I think you’ve done a marvelous job of describing the advantages reaching out can bring … in both directions. I share your concern that there is likely to be less of this with most people glued to their phones. More’s the pity. Thanks for your input, OmniRunner.

      Like

  11. Your cartoons are great in this, Jane. For years I had a Dilbert one hanging in my work office in which Wally, one of the many characters in that strip, said something along the lines of: “Don’t be intimidated by me. I’m just here to head nod while you’re talking to show that I’m working.” 🙂

    I wasn’t great at small talk during my working years for some reason, but I really enjoy catching up with my neighbors and those at our temple. There’s something quite comforting by small talk, I think. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Aha, another Dilbert lover! I’m glad retirement allowed you to slow down enough to enjoy these simple yet gratifying interactions, Marty. I hope you share your humorous side; the world needs more of it!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Jean says:

    As long as the small talk is genuine and positive, it is a good thing. I don’t quite agree with Swedish cultural habits.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. As much as I admire the culture in many ways, I would not be comfortable in Sweden. I come from a very friendly, chatty ethnic group—Franco-American, masters of small talk. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  14. For me, small talk works best if I’m having lunch of coffee with someone. Although I do find myself chatting with checkout clerks these days when there’s no one behind me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks for a new perspective on the dreaded small talk—the reason I am disenchanted with most social gatherings. I do love the idea of quick little interactions with strangers in elevators and in the grocery line, however. I always walk away from one of those brief encounters feeling uplifted, with a smile on my face and joy in my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Julia. We are of like mind. One of the few things that I actually appreciated about pandemic isolation was the break from some of the more superficial social gatherings! But I also take pleasure from brief public interactions. It turns out there’s a reason for that!

      Like

  16. Margaret says:

    Interesting post Jane. Only yesterday, upon entering a local cafe, was I blessed with small talk – “what a lovely jumper you’re wearing”; “thank you”; “phew isn’t it warm?”; “we feel the same”! – and it made a tired, out of sorts me, feel better. I also remember a lovely, enduring, female relationship from years ago starting with small talk. We don’t need to be heavy and serious all of the time do we? As you say it’s about eye contact, smiles, being sociable. Those times we’re not feeling sociable we may benefit from small talk most of all(?)

    Liked by 1 person

  17. debscarey says:

    I think I heard the problem with small talk in Sweden is that Swedes believe conversation should be substantive and weighty, otherwise why bother. But I may have imagined that 🙂

    I agree. Simple and pleasant interactions are good for people, except possibly for introverts and heavy-weight thinkers!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Bernie says:

    I am very good at small talk and even masked I tried to keep it up. I knew my postman and the milk delivery guy when we lived in the city. I’ve talked about hockey in line ups and cooking in grocery stores. Glad to hear it’s good for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Pingback: Small Talk – better for your health than Vitamin C?! – Vinland Surgicals Ltd

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