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The Power of Office Small Talk

When I arrived at my office this morning, I exchanged “hellos” with some construction workers who have been on campus for several months; I briefly chatted with a staff member who asked about my weekend; I inquired with a co-worker about their sick family member; and greeted another co-worker on my way to grab a second cup of coffee. Each encounter lasted a matter of minutes, but set the stage for my day by creating a sense of connection to those around me.

Interestingly, small talk—short, superficial, or trivial communication that does not involve task-related exchange of information—makes up about one-third of adults’ speech. People frequently have small talk in common areas (hence the phrase ‘water-cooler talk’), before and after formal meetings, and at the start and end of the workday (for instance, to wind down); they also engage in small talk when transitioning to serious topics of conversation such as business negotiations, job interviews, or performance evaluations.

In 1923, social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski described small talk as “a mere phrase of politeness… Inquiries about health, comments on the weather, affirmations of some supremely obvious state of things—all such are exchanged, not in order to inform, not in this case to connect people to action, certainly not in order to express any thought.” This stands true today: In a recent survey about conversations with colleagues at work, 72 percent of employees reported discussing weekend plans or weather, 44 percent discussed sports, and 36 percent discussed primetime television (no, I still have never seen Game of Thrones, Karen!). But, because small talk is typically considered inconsequential, disposable, and forgettable, there has been very little research exploring its effects on employees at work. Instead, organizational scholars have privileged more meaningful forms of communication that ‘gets stuff done’ or creates measurable value.

In a study I recently conducted with Emily Rosado-Solomon (Rutgers University), Patrick Downes (Texas Christian University), and Allison Gabriel (University of Arizona), we suggest that office “chit-chat” can have both positive and negative effects on employees’ daily work experiences. We asked employees across a variety of organizations to complete 3 daily surveys over 15 consecutive workdays and found, on one hand, that small talk at work can improve daily emotions, which helps individuals to recover from stress at the end of the workday. On the other hand, small talk disrupted employees’ ability to fully engage in and pay attention to their work. We concluded that the polite and scripted nature of small talk fosters feelings of membership, belongingness, and enthusiasm, without requiring much effort (this is even in light of the potential for small talk to feel draining, distracting, or boring).

Our findings are supported by a Harvard Business Review article by Karyn Twaronite on the Surprising Power of Simply Asking Coworkers How They’re Doing. She reports that 40% of the people surveyed are feeling physically and emotionally isolated at work, which is consistent with research by Sigal Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik demonstrating that workplace loneliness and exclusion are becoming an epidemic. While some of the tips involve going farther than simply having small talk, they include “checking in” with coworkers, which can help combat these negative experiences. (For other great tips, see this New York Times article on "How to Talk to People".)

So, remember, a simple “hello” can change the course of your and your coworker’s day, and likely create a high-quality connection in the future.

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Unknown member
Mar 27, 2019

I of course now think about this ALL THE TIME! One of the things I struggle with is the (sometimes) awkward move from small talk to "big" talk. But perhaps I shouldn't worry about it - the fact that we are engaging in small talk is what really matters, and not just "getting down to business."

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