In Defense of Small Talk

Our time is valuable, but let’s not protect it at all costs.

A few months ago, I published a podcast about the importance of talking to strangers. Then I shared a teaser on LinkedIn, which focused on how small talk can be a valuable opening to deeper conversation.

Then this stranger left me a little… note:

In Defense of Small Talk

I agree with one thing this person said: Entrepreneurs (and everyone) really should be protective of their time. I sure am. But what this guy’s suggesting is much more aggressive than setting reasonable boundaries.

Actually, it’s as if he has completely misunderstood what we’re doing on earth as humans. Any kind of relationship — and a business relationship in particular — is built on a foundation of mutual understanding. And how do you get that?

It’s not by acting like the Queen of England. It’s by shooting the breeze.

Chatting is time well spent

When I interviewed my friend Joe Keohane, author of The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, for that podcast, he told me that, far from being a waste of time, small talk is a powerful filter.

“Yes, small talk can be dull,” Joe writes. “But that’s because most people don’t understand what it’s for. It’s not the conversation. It’s the opener for a better conversation. It’s a way to get comfortable with one another and cast around for something you want to talk about.”

Think back to a time when you met a stranger who happened to be from your hometown. Immediate connection! That thing you have in common, meaningless as it may be, is shorthand for a shared frame of reference. It encourages an exploration of other subject you have in common, which can help you find even more meaningful connections.

That kind of makes small talk sound like not a waste of time, right? I’d even call it a necessary step to a functional interaction. Specifically, one that comes at the beginning.

A sensible order of operations

Can you imagine opening a conversation with business terms and then moving on to the weather at the end, once you’ve proved your business value? You don’t earn pleasantries. If anything, it’s the pleasantries that earn you the trust and respect to move onto talking business.

Not to mention, without chatting for a while, how are we even supposed to know what we can help each other accomplish? There’s all kinds of good stuff that comes up when you’re speaking off the cuff. Maybe you need to hire someone, but that’s not the reason you came to talk to me. Maybe I know just the right person for you, and we’d never figure that out if we didn’t have a casual chat. Wouldn’t that be a loss?

Maybe the most important misunderstanding in that crank’s LinkedIn comment is that, yes, as strangers, we don’t have incentive to help each other out. And that’s the whole point.

Would you feel comfortable calling me up to ask for a favor right now? Probably not — unless we’re old buddies from work, childhood, or college. And if we’re strangers, I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking you for help, either. That’s reasonable. So if we ever want to be in a mutually beneficial relationship, for business or otherwise, we have to become not-strangers. We must take a small gamble on each other. We must connect without knowing what benefits will come.

Business (and life!) is really about people, not about transactions. And even though we’re all protecting our time, we protect it so that we can spend some of it on meaningful connections that give us the things we need, whether that’s business advice or a sense of human connection.

Our time is valuable, sure, but let’s not forget to find ways to let those defenses down and start with something small. So… how about this weather we’re having?


Why Is Change So Scary?

I loved discussing this subject on the podcast The Political Orphanage. Tune in to find out why schools once banned teddy bears, people feared what radio would do to their faces, and my prescription for how innovators can “build a bridge of familiarity” and help people embrace new technologies.


Cover Photo: Campaign Creators,