Has the pandemic killed small talk?

1 month ago 45

Picture the last time you sat on a bus and the person next to you struck up a conversation.

Remember when you were in a shop and the conversation was more than a mumbled mask-covered greeting.

Think about the most recent chat you had about absolutely nothing in a smoking area of a pub with a random person because you wanted to nab one of their cigarettes.

Or replay the final time you stood awkwardly in the staff kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil while Kevin from accounts asked you about your weekend. And then, when the conversation fizzled out, you mumbled about the smell in the fridge and how the microwave was on its last legs.

Do you shudder at the thought?

Or do you yearn for the raging discomfort that is small talk?

Small talk is an informal type of discussion that doesn’t cover any specific topic of conversation that needs to be addressed. In other words, it usually involves two or more people talking about nothing for longer than needed.

It was an element of daily life that couldn’t be avoided. From meetings to cafes to weddings, small talk followed us around like a love-sick puppy.

That was until the entirety of our existence changed and we switched from IRL interactions to laptop screens.

Zoom and Microsoft Teams are not the spaces for small talk. It’s like the police rocking up to an illegal rave or your father’s mistress coming to your mother’s birthday party.

The vibes just aren’t right.

Cameras mysteriously stop working. Microphones turn off. Most sit in awkward silence with vacant looks on their faces or pretend to be picking something from their trousers until the meeting begins.

In person, masks and social distancing make the idea of clear communication a sarcastic joke. Speaking in tongues in a nightclub would be easier to understand. Every encounter feels like plucking up the courage to talk to your crush at the age of 15. It’s messy and mortifying.

And when the shop assistant in Tesco says ‘nice weather we have today,’ and you reply ‘sorry never met him before,’ it’s time to stop trying altogether.

Our pandemic communication style doesn’t give or take. It’s fast and straightforward. There is no time to hang back and chat because there are risks in doing so. In many ways, we have become used to reclusiveness. We stand apart and move quickly. It’s habitual, and habits are hard to break.

So is small talk gone forever?

Clinical Psychologist Michaela Thomas says not necessarily, because very soon we will be maneuvering back to normality.

‘It’s the social glue of relationships,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘So much of our communication with others on a day-to-day basis is a bit mundane, without goal or aim but helps us stay connected with others.

‘When we don’t plan what will come out of a conversation and relax into it with some small talk, it can build a foundation for connection.’

Michaela believes it was only a matter of time for small talk to fall to the wayside during the pandemic.

‘Many people feel that the expectations have been lowered for good professionalism due to juggling children and Zoom calls,’ she says. ‘They want to cut straight to the chase, to get the call finished sooner. We are fed up with social interactions over screens.

‘Plus, small talk in shops can also feel anxiety-provoking – giving rise to anxious thoughts such as “are we breaking the rules” and so on. Some also experience increased anxiety from wearing a face mask, and find it difficult to do relaxed small talk with one on.’

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review said small talk is a vital component of working life, and all businesses should make time for it. But why?

‘The little things lead to the big things,’ says communication expert Shola Kaye. ‘If you always jump into important conversations, it can seem too businesslike. Small talk creates a caring environment with questions such as “how is your family?”

‘It gives an impression that we have feelings towards the other person rather than demanding where the report is straight away.’

All of this is well and good, but small talk is hated by many and induces fear and copious amounts of sweat. Shola says some people see it as a hindrance before vital information is communicated, while others have been drip fed an ideal of small talk from TV and movies.

‘We watch things on TV where people have amazing, witty, and funny conversations, but in reality, our version of small talk is awkward and stilted. And then some people are just excellent at it, and others aren’t.’

If you are an individual who has forgotten how to operate in social situations, there are ways in which you can practice the art form.

‘Try speaking on the phone more,’ Shola advises. ‘Start having more conversations with the people you live with because the idea of speaking to someone face to face might feel overwhelming.’

‘Most importantly, be honest about how you feel and even say it out loud in conversations where small talk is needed. Because that would be a great way to break the ice.’

Both Michaela and Shola anticipate that small talk will never die because, as humans, we will always yearn for connection, no matter how trivial.

However, the transition back to a culture of small talk will take time. Michaela says the most important thing for those currently fearing increased interaction is to be compassionate with themselves.

‘We have all been affected by this,’ she explains. ‘Odds are that the person you are talking to feels as out of practice as you do.

‘ Be patient with yourself as you get back into the swing of things, and allow some clunkier conversations at first. The more you do something difficult, the easier it gets over time. Lower your expectations of how smooth you “should” be.

‘It will be weird at first, but be kind to others and yourself.’

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