The real reasons why we need to speak Small Talk

Recent articles in the press have pointed out that Germans think we English speakers spend a lot of time and saliva on meaningless small talk that utterly wastes everyone’s time. Are they right? I’m not so sure…

In this article on the BBC News website, Stephen Evans, their Berlin correspondent, reports the following:

“Professor Juliane House, of the University of Hamburg, has studied groups of people interacting in controlled situations, watching with academic rigour how they behave as human guinea-pigs. She found (or verified) that Germans really don’t do small talk, those little phrases so familiar to the British about the weather or a person’s general well-being, but which she describes as ‘empty verbiage.’ In academic language, this is “phatic” conversation – it’s not meant to convey hard information but to perform some social function, such as making people feel good.”

So – does Small Talk have a role to play in our writing?

Germans may be quite right, of course, to denigrate Small Talk as a waste of space and a barrier between us and real, proper, verbal or written communication. But wait a minute. Jumping straight into the nitty-gritty without any preamble, surely, could have a detrimental effect in some cases?

In a social context, take your average postcard written from a sunny, palm-fringed location and sent to a great-aunt in Bolton (UK) or Pittsburgh (USA). Using Small Talk, it might go something like this:

“Hi – weather is great here and we’re having a lovely time, lots of sun and fun. Hope it’s not raining back home and that you’re catching up with your gardening! Lots of love from….etc.”

But now, let’s strip the Small Talk out of it and try again, using honest, truthful-speak:

“Hi – we’re getting hideously sunburnt, the beach is over-crowded and the kids have had bad diarrhea ever since we arrived. Hope it’s not raining too hard back home that you can get your *ss out of your chair once in a while to cut back those awful weeds in your back yard. Lots of love from….etc”

What about in a business context?

Imagine a business meeting early in the morning…

“Welcome to London, Ed – this is Ed Walker, everyone. I’m so sorry your overnight flight from Seattle was delayed. You must be tired and I do know the feeling! We’ve got coffee and biscuits coming in a while, but in the meantime can we order you some breakfast after that long flight, to help get you through our meeting?”

Now, let’s strip out the Small Talk…

“This is Ed Walker from Seattle. He’s only just got here which means we’re ten minutes behind schedule and I have another meeting at 11:00, so let’s get on with it. OK, Ed, about this contract we want you to award us…”

Or perhaps …

“Hey George, welcome and thanks for joining us this morning! How are you doing? How did that golfing weekend go? Hope you stunned them all with your new putter. Bet you did… And before you start showing us how to hold that new TaylorMade, let’s have a look at business, eh? ”

And, stripping out the Small Talk…

“Right, George, let’s get down to business. Your sales figures for last month are cr*p, probably because you bunk off early most days to play golf…”

Is Small Talk in our writing so utterly dishonest after all?

As the good lady Professor Juliane House from Hamburg pointed out, Small Talk is all about being “phatic” (which, forgive me, sounds rude somehow.) But it means, when used to describe conversation, “to make people feel good.” And much as I respect the Professor’s superior qualifications, I can’t be so dismissive about the benefits of making people feel good, especially – but not only – when it comes to marketing writing.

If you take a good look around most advertising and marketing text, you’ll see examples of Small Talk helping to create “good vibes” in all sorts of circumstances in order to introduce a selling message, along – hopefully – with an expression of its associated benefits.

OK – we may not be so honest about this stuff as Germans are, chopping out any emotive, touchy-feely wording and replacing it with purely factual content. But a Small Talk element, in English at any rate, is always a useful entry point into a more specific conversation.

I know which form of writing I prefer to use for social purposes! And for business, a bit of Small Talk combined with factual representation of the benefits of the business proposition goes a long, long way towards engaging your audience, making them feel comfortable with your presence, and getting them on your side.

What do you think? Come on, share your views! Does Small Talk – verbal or written – make you gag? Or do you think it has a valid place as a writing resource in our culture?

Make sure your writing is Big Talk:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

Comments

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Thoughts

  1. One of the benefits of small talk is that it allows you to get a measure of the pace and style of the person you are speaking to, to get used to each other. I think it improves the quality of a conversation when you get to the important bit. There’s a bit of a dance where you work out the right small talk to pursue; weather, sport, the journey to get to where you are. You have to judge the right amount; too little and you may seem pushy, too much and you’re rather dull.

    Small talk evolves. For example, it’s no longer advisable to talk about families or children because lifestyles have changed. Small talk is a skill in its own right, but if you’re doing business internationally then you have to learn what the norms are in the different cultures you will find yourself in. Germans have a reputation for efficiency and that will come with its own benefits.

    • You make some very valid points James. I would especially pick up on the international aspect of small talk because cultural issues and local manners are such a minefield … which is ridiculous when you think about it, when international business is so commonplace now. Business is business and is based very much on today’s markets, but manners – even in business – go back centuries!

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