The golden rule of small talk, as anyone who has worked behind a bar can testify, is don’t say what’s on your mind. Rule two, avoid any reference to politics, religion, money, death, health and sex. The price of a pint and the weather are safe bets, and can be discussed in idle chat night after night, often with the same regular, as if never mentioned before. No confrontation, little harm done, nothing given away. Or so it was once thought.
Now, economists Professor Daniel Sgroi and Neha Bose from the University of Warwick have conducted what they think is the first study of its kind, putting 338 individuals through an IQ and personality test before placing them in pairs to play two money games in which the extent of cooperation affected the outcome.
The study found that just four minutes of passing the time with a stranger can give away key aspects of personality which, in turn, influences later behaviour. “Small talk matters,” they conclude.
In their paper, the academics quote an example of two diplomats engaged in week-long negotiations that are progressing slowly until, on the Wednesday, one chats to the other that he needs to be home by Friday to attend an opera with his wife. “Immediately a connection was formed on two fronts: a shared dislike of opera and a shared interest in keeping spouses happy… The pace picked up, and the diplomat went home as scheduled… with a signed agreement in hand.”
The study divided the 338 participants into two groups. One group could text with a partner for four minutes. The other group had no communication. The participants were then asked to guess aspects of their partner’s personality and predict whether they would act cooperatively or selfishly in two games.
Personality types were divided into “extraversion”, which the academics describe as having “sociability, enthusiasm, tempo and vigour … projects positivity” and “neuroticism”, described as negativity, “high emotion, fearfulness, hostility… impulsivity … insecurity and self consciousness” (and, one would think, not much given to chit-chat).
The pairs who had earlier made small talk scored more highly on predicting their partner’s IQ and answers to the personality test and the extent of their contributions in the games (with little difference between the genders). “In even a few minutes, we will start to form a mental model of the person we are talking with,” explained Sgroi. “Are they extroverted or introverted do they seem upbeat or downbeat? These sorts of impressions won’t be perfect but they will be useful.”
Yet small talk, whether directly useful or not, is under threat. The pandemic placed it in temporary incubation as we all stayed home. But now, where is it most likely to take place? In queues, bus stops and on public transport among other venues. What’s often stopping it?
Smartphones don’t help. Not only do they offer hours of isolated entertainment, gossip, several hundred holiday snaps, Instagram, spats on Twitter and much else. Unless a person is actually conducting a conversation, a phone, unlike small talk, has no requirement to listen or engage.
As Studs Terkel, the great chronicler of American life, once wrote: “We are more and more into communications and less and less into communication.” Does it matter? In the 1980s, Anna Deavere Smith, spent years asking a range of people their responses to three questions (not to be recommended as a catalyst for small talk). Have you ever come close to death? Do you know the circumstances of your birth? Have you ever been accused of something you did not do? In her book, Talk to Me, she said her aim was “to listen between the lines”, “to dig deeper than the surface”. Listening has a value.
Chatting to a stranger you may never meet again may not have an outcome of the kind described in the Warwick study – but it can leave a lasting impression. A little human engagement may help to change a mindset stuck in a darker place or inject humour at a time when it’s otherwise in short supply.
September 3, 2022 at 08:01PM Yvonne Roberts