If your goal is to research and understand the complex dynamics and nuances of human relations, one of the most fascinating places to study would be any office place in the Western world. These environments provide a uniquely remarkable recipe for observing not only what makes a human being tick, but also what makes a select few rise to the top and so many others fall down into the average mass. The office workplace is a highly sophisticated social structure, and a fascinating laboratory for understanding the mechanisms of human relations. Among the most compelling social skills to observe in an office is what has come to be known as “small talk”.
Small talk is an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed, and is conversation for its own sake, or, has been described as “comments on what is perfectly obvious.” The social skill of small talk was initially studied in 1923 by Bronisław Malinowski, who coined the term “phatic communication” to describe it, and there is quite simply no better place to observe it in use than a networked workplace. In a brilliant new feature written for Harvard Business Review by Andy Moliknsky, an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, the phenomenon is analyzed from the perspective of an immigrant new to America and completely unfamiliar with this type of social communication which may appear irrelevant at first-glance, but in fact is one of the core fundamentals to success. Moiknsky writes:
“There’s nothing small about the role that small talk plays in American professional culture. People from other countries are often surprised at how important small talk is in the U.S. and how naturally and comfortably people seem to do it — with peers, subordinates, men, women, and even with superiors like Dr. Greer. You can be the most technically skilled worker in the world, but your ability to progress in your job and move up the corporate ladder in the United States is highly dependent on your ability to build and maintain positive relationships with people at work. And guess what skill is critical for building and maintaining these relationships? Small talk.
When searching for a job, the ability to make effective small talk is essential for creating a quick sense of rapport with potential employers. Once you secure a position, small talk is essential to bond with colleagues, create a positive relationship with your boss, and win the trust and respect of clients, suppliers, and people in your extended professional network. What is also crucial in the eyes of a potential employer, boss, or client is whether they feel they can trust you — and whether they like you and want to work with you. The ability to forge connections and relationships through small talk is a critical tool for achieving this purpose. This is certainly true in formal situations such as an interview or a meeting, where small talk is often used as a friendly, lighthearted precursor to the main, “serious” portion of the discussion. It is also critically important during more unpredictable and unscheduled moments of organizational life, such as that impromptu chat you happen to have in the elevator with your boss or on the subway home. Or the discussion you have with a colleague or client seated next to you at a corporate event.
In all these situations, small talk is a critical tool for creating a personal bond. Although ultimately you will likely be accepted or rejected based on more concrete aspects of your work, the fact of the matter is that these interpersonal impressions matter a great deal along the way and can even shape how people judge your more technical production. The problem, of course, is that small talk differs across cultures, not only in how it’s done, but also in terms of its role and importance in business communication. In many cultures — especially those with more formal rules for communication and with a strong emphasis on social hierarchy — it’s considered inappropriate to engage in casual conversation with superiors. In addition, it can also feel impolite and even dangerous to openly express your opinion during small talk, especially if it could potentially conflict with the other person’s opinion. For example, if you express your allegiance toward a particular team or a point of view about any other topic without knowing that of your colleague, you might put them in the uncomfortable position of having to either suppress their own preference or express something that conflicts with yours. In many cultures, it can also be particularly inappropriate to make small talk with strangers or to share any personal information with someone you don’t know. America may be one of the only countries in the world where it’s common to strike up a personal conversation with a complete stranger.
Finally, the way that Americans ask others how things are going or how they are doing can feel superficial to people from other cultures who are used to providing an actual, elaborated answer to such questions. They might understandably assume that if someone is asking them how they are doing, the person is genuinely interested in the answer, when in the U.S., this may just actually be a ritualized way of greeting that doesn’t really actually demand a long answer — and, in fact, a long, elaborated answer to the question of “How’s it going?” would likely be inappropriate for most people in the U.S.”
You can read the entire feature The Big Challenge Of American Small Talk by visiting the Harvard Business Review.