Better Small Talk

The Small Talk Mindset

Human beings are a social species. Connection is crucial to happiness, staving off depression, and keeping healthy—literally. Various studies have shown that the effects of loneliness are akin to eating a poorer diet and exercising less, and can ultimately lead to the same place—an early death. It might sound a little melodramatic, but companionship is literally the way our brains have been built to survive and thrive. But for the purposes of this books topic, theres an even more important wrinkle: the quality of our interactions matters as well, not just the quantity or presence of other people around us. Sounds like even our brains despise small talk. A 2010 study by Matthias Mehl had participants wandering around in their daily lives armed with a device that would record their audio environment over three days. The researchers analyzed how long each participant was in the presence of other people, and whether they were having casual conversations or were talking about more substantive matters. Basically, the aim was to capture what kinds of interactions these participants were taking part in, and the effect they had on their lives. At the same time, the researchers also measured peoples overall level of happiness and mental and physical well-being. They found a clear correlation between substantive and deep discussions and greater wellbeing and happiness. Its something youve probably suspected or even felt before, but being vulnerable and open with others is a deeply satisfying activity on many levels. As for small talk, that which is the opposite of substance and depth? Well, it drew a negative correlation with well-being and happiness, meaning it made people less happy. There you have it; real evidence that small talk is something to be avoided, or at least transition out of as quickly as possible. Researcher Arthur Aron conducted a study in 1997, in which he paired participants who didn know each other and gave them a list of fairly personal questions to ask. Although the questions were not offensively intrusive, they were more than just small talk. ( ”Would you like to be famous and how? ” ”Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die? ” ”What is your most terrible memory? ” ”How do you feel about your relationship with your mother? ”) Aron found that the participants responded to these ”deep dives ” with openness and intimacy. The participants didn feel that the questions, as personal as they were, necessarily invaded their privacy or weakened them in any way. Instead, these questions encouraged honesty, more emotional fluency, and sincerity in the respondents. They felt closer to the other participants, who were complete strangers before the experiment. Future iterations of this study were given names such as ”How to fall in love with 36 questions ” because of the powerful effects it had on the relationships between the participants, which were previously nonexistent. You probably already know deep in your bones what these two studies laid out: delving more deeply or intensely in our communications can create positive results far more swiftly than one might think. Now the question remains: how can we actually do that? In this book, I want to provide a framework, from beginning to end, about how to engage people more effectively and move beyond small talk. Well start even before the interaction begins with how you should prepare yourself, and move on through all the stages of small talk to arrive at something more meaningful. At the prospect of reading this book, you might be overly excited about throwing yourself into the midst of a conversation and seeing what you can accomplish. After all, you
e reading this book for a reason, and motivation can make you overeager—but rushing in would be a mistake for the time being. It would be akin to running into battle without your shield, sword, or even pants.

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