Surface level small talk is the most superficial form of communication out there.
“How’s the weather?” “How was your weekend?” “What’s been happening lately?” Such boring questions.
Small talk is the easiest way to begin a conversation, but research is confirming what most of us already know but don’t practice: small talk doesn’t help us build meaningful relationships and doesn’t contribute to our happiness.
If we know that small talk doesn’t help us, why does it happen so much?
The sad answer is that we so consistently take the easy path. When we have the freedom to go about things the way we want, we’ll go for the lowest common denominator and pick a topic that we know will be agreeable with the other person. We take the path of fitting in over expanding our minds together through deeper conversations.
This is why we need to ban social talk at social gatherings. Okay, an outright ban may be taking things a little far, but hear me out.
Recently, Kristan Berman and Dan Ariely conducted an experiment by banning small talk at a dinner party. Berman is the founder of Irrational Labs, a non-profit behavioral consulting company, and Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.
Berman and Ariely set up some rules for their dinner party:
- Everyone needs to arrive at the same time. The reason: avoid conversations being broken by new arrivals.
- No small talk was allowed. Only meaningful conversations.
The rules took away some personal freedom in favour of the more important goal of testing the result of no small talk at a social gathering. Usually, there is significant personal risk in being the one to introduce complex or meaningful topics at a social gathering. This time there was no choice but to embark on these conversation topics.
Here’s what was discussed at their dinner party:
- How to hold public officials accountable for their actions.
- Who (besides their significant others) would give up a kidney if one was needed.
- The theory of suicide prevention.
- The art of the dominatrix.
Midway through the dinner, the guests were actively and enthusiastically enforcing the rule of no small talk. Berman and Ariely assert that “instead of decreasing freedom, people appeared freer to talk about the things they really wanted to talk about.”
The common rule of no small talk created a new environment that redefined people’s best interests and supposedly made people happier. Two dates also came out of the evening. Could it be that meaningful conversation makes us more attractive?
Berman and Ariely’s experiment is fascinating and brings to mind a few insights.
The first is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to form meaningful connections with others. We have so many opportunities to meet new people and keep in touch with loved ones in the modern age. Technology makes all of us instantly accessible and we can use apps to meet new people so quickly.
Yet we don’t have the time to stop and have a meaningful conversation with someone. We get used to simple conversations around mundane topics, thinking that the time we spend time someone is what matters in forming a deep connection.
What really matters in relationships is sharing a sense of purpose or fundamental values. The beauty of life is that we are all so unique, and we don’t need to share our values with other people. It’s more important to find people that also want to live by the same values as you.
Meaningful conversations are the best way to figure out whether you share values and a sense of purpose with those around you.
The second insight is that we live in a world full of notifications and distractions vying for our attention. We never get the chance to sit down and spend time with our own thoughts, thinking about what makes us tick.
Dialogue with others is a really effective way to explore your own mind and get to know yourself.
Perhaps introducing an outright ban on small talk at social gatherings is taking things a little too far. But it may be worth conducting your own social experiment the next time you invite friends over for a dinner party or get together.
If you do, or have done this before, let me know in the comments the result. Did it help people to form more meaningful relationships with each other? Were there more dates to come from single people meeting at these gatherings? Did people end up having more fun?