Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Big Value of “Small Talk” in Our Emotional Lives

value of small talkThere is nothing small about “small talk.”

Defined as polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially used on social occasions, small talk has often been seen in a pejorative or dismissive way.

Actually, small talk has a much broader meaning. Whether we love it or dread it, whether it serves us as a “ tool or trait,” we use “small talk” for meeting important psychological needs. We use it to make connections, to regulate anxiety and to facilitate the interplay between these two necessary functions.

When you met your partner or spouse for the first time, did you open with a question like: Will you marry me, sleep with me, and have my children?

More likely, you used what would be deemed small talk to show some interest and bridge an initial connection:

“So you are the new guy in the office.”

“What’s a female with a Yankee hat doing in Boston?”

It is also likely that whether shy or outgoing, you have found yourself in a hospital waiting room, a delayed airplane, or the crowd outside a funeral home engaging in small talk – and that it helped you.

Resonating with the importance of small talk is the recent book by Dr. Justine Copeland that examines the phenomena of small talk as inherent in human discourse across cultures, venues and relationships. There is a reason that in international relations, small talk is the necessary preface to big talk. There is a reason that in highly stressful situations as corporate negotiations, medical consults, and job interviews, “small talk” opens and closes the sessions.

Your Personal Use of  “Small Talk”

Connection and the regulation of anxiety play major roles in our lives and the lives of those closest to us. There may be value in reconsidering and  expanding the bigger  role that “small talk” can play.

Barometer of Couple Connection

  • In some ways you might consider that the extremes of small talk reflect the tenor of a relationship.

“We are not even civil to each other anymore.”

“The Deli guy asks me more about my day than you do!”

  • True love doesn’t mean civility, social exchange and expressed interest in the day to day are no longer needed. In fact – whether by phone, text, e-mail or in person, small talk is essential to the fabric of the romantic bond. It is a way of touching.
  • Sometimes it is the use of “small talk” that re-sets the harmony or connection of a couple. It may be that after a heated exchange no one is budging until one or the other asks, “What is the name of that new show that is coming on?”
  • If a couple wants to re-set a connection –  small talk can be the bridge back.
  • Sometimes the signal that a couple is struggling is the other extreme – the only thing safe is “small talk.”  “The only think left to talk about is the weather.” 
  • It is worth talking about that extreme or getting help to talk about it.

Listening to Small Talk Differently

  • Once you consider the role of “small talk” in reaching for connection and regulating anxiety, it is likely you will hear it and respond to it differently.
  • When a little one or anyone asks one or more times what you are doing when you are clearly painting and he/she clearly knows it; there is a good chance the question is about connection and not information. “Dad, what are you doing, paining?”
  • When the response is, “Come help me,” or “Hey, what’s happening?” vs.“What does it look like I am doing?”  it is likely that the feeling and the connection will be very different.

Enhancement of Self-Esteem

The comfort of talking about or hearing about anything from sports to cooking, is increasingly seen as a vehicle of success in and outside of the home because it lowers social anxiety and makes interpersonal risk taking more likely.

The recognition that your question about someone else’s interests or your sharing of interests will be welcomed by family, friend or business partner because it also lowers their anxiety and implies interest – is a psychological asset.

Small Talk – Big Reason

Many times, much as in the outside world, family members preface a highly anxious issue with small talk. If you can listen without dismissal to what seems like small talk by a spouse, child, teen or parent, you may facilitate an opportunity for crucial disclosure.

“So you know the neighbors are thinking of retiring in the next few years.”

“So Mom, you remember that boy whose mother used to teach with you, someone said he was on drugs.”

“A lot of kids don’t want to drive anymore.”

 Small Talk – Family Bonds

  • In this culture of family members spread far and wide with few living in the same state much less the same building in Brooklyn, the weekly call has become a way of staying connected. Different than the letter, email or text, there is something about hearing the voice that matters. What matters less is the content.
  • Small talk is the weekly parlance of family members who check in to ask, “Hi, how are you doing?”  “ What’s up?”
  • The subject matter is of far less importance that the fact that it serves the conduit for emotional connection, the expression of concern, the feeling of being remembered.
  • In fact, when family members of any age call just to say hello – it has a bigger meaning when they have to call with big reasons.

 Sometimes the most important things we need are the small things we already have.


Women talking photo available from Shutterstock