Small Talk Is… Good?

How to talk to strangers.

Do you hate small talk? I hate small talk. It’s boring! It’s stupid!

Here’s what we’re missing: Small talk isn’t supposed to be anyone’s goal. But it has a purpose.

“It's not a conversation,” my old friend Joe Keohane tells me. “It's a window to a better conversation.”

Joe wrote a completely fascinating book called The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, which comes out this week. He takes readers through all the things that can keep us apart, but also the ingenious ways humans have managed to make meaningful connections with strangers for, oh, the last half million years — from hunter-gatherer societies to modern cities. Then he goes deep into the latest social science research to come up with proven strategies for getting really good at connecting with strangers, which is something all of us can and should be better at. And he tries these strategies out himself.

This book blew my mind, and it made me think about how most of us are only taking tiny advantage of the great power we have: As social creatures, we are able to connect and coordinate and build great things together. But most of us are afraid to connect, thinking we’ll be rejected if we try to connect. (Research finds the opposite: People are rarely rejected when trying to talk with strangers.)

So here, in this newsletter, I want to share three fun facts from Joe’s work that really stuck with me — and that I hope inspire you to get connecting.

We’ll start with, well, the subject we started with…

Fact 1: Small talk is good

“It's a funny misunderstanding,” Joe tells me. “We'll tend to assume that if someone makes small talk with us, that's all they're capable of. So we check out and start making mindless small talk back, and then you go into this doom loop that occupies five minutes of your life that you'll never get back.”

But that’s a missed opportunity. The social anthropologist Kate Fox has done a lot of research into small talk, and finds that it’s a system we’ve designed establish that both people are capable of interacting. We want to know that someone is safe and sane, and then, from there, we can find a commonality and drift into an actual connection.

“But somebody has going to take the lead,” Joe says. “You can notice something about the person, or you can ask an open-ended question like, ‘What were you going to do today?’ Just really general questions that allow them to get out of that autopilot mode and offer something personal about themselves.”

And why are we searching for commonalities? Because…

Fact 2: We are weirdly into commonalities

In his book, Joe highlights many studies that capture the same ridiculous phenomenon: We trust people who we have something in common with, even if it’s totally meaningless.

“One [study] found that when undergraduates were told that they shared a birthday or a first name with a stranger, or had a similar fingerprint, they were more likely to comply with that person’s request to donate money or offer feedback on a paper,” Joe writes. “Another found that people were far more inclined to like a salesperson—and showed a stronger intention to buy from them—if they were told they shared a birthday.”

But what about people we don’t have things in common with? They’re fine too, because…

Fact 3: We are not naturally hostile

There’s a belief that humans are tribal, and naturally fear and will even attack strangers. I remember once reading a theory that, in early civilization, if two strangers came across each other on a path, they’d instantly battle to the death.

But Joe found that this isn’t true. “Historians have argued that the ability to talk to strangers and coordinate and cooperate with strangers is the cornerstone of human civilization,” Joe tells me. Our earliest ancestors had complicated rituals for building trust among strangers. In some cultures, that could mean a stranger would sit outside a territory for hours, showing deference and waiting for someone from the group to eventually come meet them. We retain a version of that today: It’s a handshake, designed as a ritual to establish trust.

Here’s one my favorite paragraphs from Joe’s book, which gets to this theme:

The anthropologist Polly Wiessner told me a story about her time with the Ju/Wasi in the Kalahari Desert that speaks to this. She once told them that, in America, sometimes people murder strangers. “Everybody was just laughing,” she said, “Like: ‘Why would you murder someone you didn’t know? You’d murder your brother if he had something you didn’t have, but you’re not going to murder someone you don’t know!”

The idea of strangers in conflict literally made these tribespeople LOL.

We are social by nature, and by history. If we want to build for tomorrow, we have to do it together.

Again, I strongly suggest you check out Joe’s book. And you can also read an excerpt of it in Entrepreneur.


Your memory is worse (and weirder) than you think! In the latest episode of my podcast, I explore our very strange memory systems — in which we forget bad memories faster than good ones, and imagine stories for ourselves that we then think are facts. Take a listen!

Small Talk Is… Good?


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