Small talk is good for our mental health, study finds

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Helen Booth
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Even the most incidental social interactions can boost our social and emotional wellbeing, according to researchers at the University of Chicago.

Small talk is something most of us encounter every day – at the office, with acquaintances and colleagues at social events, and with the relatives we see only occasionally when attending family events.

It’s such a common occurrence, yet we often go out of our way to avoid it; indeed, the thought of initiating a chat with a stranger – scrambling to find an interesting topic of conversation while desperately avoiding any awkward silences – is enough to make most of us retreat into a quiet corner and start scrolling through our phone.

However, researchers at the University of Chicago recently conducted a survey which concluded that small talk can actually be good for us. Even the smallest social interactions can boost our social and emotional wellbeing, they discovered.

The study focused on a key paradox of our everyday lives – that connecting with others increases happiness, yet strangers in close proximity routinely ignore each other. 

According the results of the survey, participants reported a more positive experience in many everyday situations when they had interacted with those around them than when they hadn’t. The authors of the study concluded that we may actually just avoid these micro-interactions because we assume no-one else wants to talk, either.

While we’re still not convinced it’s a good idea to strike up a conversation on the tube – or with someone who’s wearing headphones – it does seem that there’s a solid argument for being braver about participating in small talk when it feels appropriate.

If you want to brush up on your conversational skills before your next encounter, here are five tips to get you started.

1. Have a go-to universal question in mind

With decades of state functions and library openings under her belt, the Queen is perhaps more comfortable with small talk than most of us. Apparently, her favourite line is, “Have you come far?” which has the dual advantage of being universal and giving the other person the impression that she is interested in them.

2. Ask open-ended questions

“Good small talkers know how to manage the rhythm of conversation,” says communications coach Mary Hartley. “They don’t ask a lot of yes/no questions, they ask open-ended questions, and they’re not afraid of silences which often give the other person time to think.”

3. Learn from the best

“Some people are born with the gift of the gab,” explains Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, “but the rest of us need to learn the skills if we seek success as good conversationalists. It can be taught either through personal development classes and books, or by observing charismatic people interact with others. Model what they say, their body language and other behaviours.”

4. Follow the 60-second rule

“I tell people to focus on relaxing,” says Dr Gary Wood, social psychologist and author of Unlock Your Confidence. “If you are relaxed, the body language takes care of itself. I also remind them that small talk is a light exchange of views not an opportunity to get on your soap box for long monologues. As a general rule, if you have been speaking for 60 seconds then you have already been speaking too long.”

5. Become comfortable with silence

Television and radio presenter Alice Levine suggests getting used to the sound of silence. “I used to be terrified of silences and babble about the first thing that came into my head, just to fill them,” says Alice, who often interviews people on-air. “I’ve learned that sometimes people are just thinking about what you’ve said, so now I try to really listen to what they’re saying rather than bombarding them with questions, which can feel like an interrogation.”

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