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Management: The Importance of Office Smalltalk, Part 1
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Management: The Importance of Office Smalltalk, Part 1 - Executive Leadership Articles

Management: The Importance of Office Smalltalk, Part 1

Executive Leadership Articles

Management: The Importance of Office Smalltalk, Part 1

Not everyone hates office smalltalk. There are a few socially gifted types in every office who, because they are stimulated by interaction at any level, understand the value of idle chatter. If you’re in a position of leadership, chances are you’ve already learned this to some extent, if not instinctively then by keen observation.

Still, most of us at the very least do not care for smalltalk at work. At worst, many of us will duck into a side room rather than deal with the awkward “Hey” returned with “Hi” as we pass that nice guy from accounting in the hall.

Keeping Up Your End of the Social Contract (an illustration)
However, dodging smalltalk at work is a bad idea, for as difficult as it is to endure sometimes, it has very real social value, and therefore real professional value. To illustrate, think about the conversation you’re likely to have with a long-time coworker you actually consider a friend as you pass each other to and from the printer. At first, you’ll stop and chat about each other’s weekends, or the latest comic book superhero movie, or whose kids made the volleyball team.

When you pass the same person later in the same day, you’re most likely to have a shorter conversation, perhaps continuing the conversation from earlier: “Oh, I just remembered the name of that volleyball website I mentioned—I’ll Skype you the link!”

Each successive incidental encounter, your interaction is likely to be shorter and less involved than the last, until the sixth or seventh passing, when it’s possible you won’t utter a word at all, but exchange smiles and nods.

Diminishing Fondness, or Acknowledgment Received?

What’s going in these later encounters? You don’t like the person less, and neither do you really have less to talk about. Instead, you’re each keeping up your ends of a kind of social contract. That nod and smile is an acknowledgment that your relationship with the person is known by you both and you care about it, but don’t feel the need to reinforce it six times per day.

In our relationships with less familiar colleagues, we don’t have as much to share, and our bonds are not strong enough to need major reinforcing, so we pick up where the conversations with our friends have hit the fourth or fifth interaction in one day. It’s not as meaningful, but this doesn’t mean it’s meaningless.

The casual exchange of smalltalk at the photocopier accomplishes several important things. First, it conveys an acknowledgement that there is some kind of relationship -- it may only be as members of the same team or employees at the same firm, but it’s something. Second, the smalltalk helps you keep each other in mind. When something comes up for which you need a bit of help, you’re much more likely to remember the person you trade chit chat with than the person you avoid. Third, increased familiarity, maybe strengthened by the time one of you helped the other out with some problem-solving, can lead to closer work later, or even recommendations for promotions or other opportunities.

Be the Change
A recent New York Times article on this topic describes the feeling we often get when we choose not to engage: “While small talk can be torture, the absence of it can also make us feel bad about ourselves, like we’re true failures at life for not being able to connect with a fellow member of the herd.” It’s possible that you prefer this feeling to the awkwardness of idle discussions about the weather, but if the person standing behind you at the printer is feeling the same way, your breaching the silence can relieve the person of these difficult feelings.

That’s pretty empowering, and it does more than make you friendly: it makes you likeable, if you do it right.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll explore what it means to do it right.

Reference link:
The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/style/the-awkward-art-of-office-small-talk.html


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Management: The Importance of Office Smalltalk, Part 1 - Executive Leadership Articles

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