It turns out small talk actually can help you get to know people pretty deeply

Written by Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk’s fitness brand Strong Women. When she’s not writing or lifting weights, she’s most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

A study found that small talk has a dramatic effect on getting to know someone’s personality.

Picture the scene: you go to get your lunch out of the fridge at work and see your colleague standing by the sink. You smile, comment on the weather, perhaps nod to the speedy passing of time (“Can you believe it’s September already?”),ask how their weekend was to which they reply “Good thanks, and you?” You walk off knowing literally nothing else about them.

Or do you? While small talk gets a bad rap for being surface-level and often awkward, research shows that it can actually tell you more about a person than you might think. 

Researchers at the University of Warwick found that “short, seemingly unimportant communication between [people] has a dramatic and important effect” on understanding each other’s personalities. 

In their study, 338 participants took a personality test and an IQ test before being paired with another person and either told not to communicate or to talk via digital chat boxes. 

Then they took part in tasks as a team. These were placebo tasks, meaning the outcome was irrelevant – really, researchers wanted to know participants’ beliefs about aspects of their partner’s personalities.

They found that those who chatted before the games were better able to predict their partner’s IQ and personality. “It is hard not to conclude that [small talk] has a pronounced effect on behaviour and on payoffs. In other words, small talk matters,” write the researchers. 

Office small talk could help you better get to know your colleagues

They note that players didn’t know what the tasks they were about to complete involved, meaning they didn’t have any common ground to discuss. In fact, the most commonly used words in conversations included ‘yeah’, ‘haha’ and ‘okay’.

“What becomes immediately apparent is how seemingly irrelevant these conversations can be with large numbers of ‘heys’ and ‘hahas’ together with sudden digressions into themes such as goldfish and exams […] depicting the very general and trivial nature of small talk,” say the researchers. And yet, these conversations about pets and other irrelevant subjects seemed to highlight quite a lot about their partner. 

Generally, it was established that those who used a higher number of words and “words which evoke more arousal and dominance” were believed to be extraverted, while those who used fewer words and “more abstract rather than concrete words” were associated with neuroticism. 

The important takeaway is that your instinct about someone after engaging in small talk could be right. Obviously, you shouldn’t make sweeping judgments based only on what someone tells you they had for lunch, but this study suggests that paying attention to small talk might offer up something deeper than just your colleague’s Tuesday craving for kale salads. 

“Small talk is the most ubiquitous of all forms of communication: if small talk turns out to be important then it is hard to argue that any form of communication is completely [without payoff],” conclude researchers. Listen closely to what those colleagues are saying – you might be surprised at how well you get to know them. 

Images: Getty

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