You all liked the last two, so I'm going to keep it going so long as I have ideas and time. This is another casual post in the spirit of what I wish someone had told me when I was younger.

Some people really hate small talk. I never really did. Mostly small talk just confused me or I barely registered the difference between small talk and big talk. So I never really cared about it one way or another.

Then I moved to the Bay Area and lived with a bunch of rationalists and found out some people really hate small talk.

I remember one time carpooling to a party. The party was in Palo Alto and we were driving down from Berkeley. As we started to cross the Dumbarton bridge we got on the topic salt flats[1]. After a couple minutes one of my fellow passengers cried out:

enough of this small talk! i could have this conversation with anyone! we're all thoughtful, interesting people! surely we can talk about something more interesting!

And then sat in silence for a couple minutes trying to come up with a good enough topic of conversation.

The standard arguments against small talk go like this:

  • Small talk is too shallow. Only deeper conversations are worth having.
  • Small talk is boring. It doesn't convey new information.
  • Small talk is fake and full of bullshitting and hyperbole as people try to make themselves look good.
  • Small talk asks people to casually share too much about their personal lives.
  • Small talk demands people be constantly ready to say mildly interesting things.

People value different things, and I'm sure some people legit don't value small talk and there's no convincing them. But our values are also informed by our skills. Sometimes what we think is a deeply held value is actually just a defense mechanism because we aren't good at a skill. So in this case, opposing small talk is sometimes the result of:

  • being introverted and overloaded and not wanting to talk at all,
  • being socially nervous or shy,
  • having had bad experiences making small talk as a kid and getting excluded from groups because of it,
  • having said something embarrassing or awkward or rude during small talk and fearing making the same mistake again,
  • and so on.

There's plenty of reason to find small talk hard. That's different from claiming it to be bad except in the narrower sense of being a bad experience for you. But that's rarely how "small talk is bad" is proclaimed. Usually it's someone who wants to get out of small talk and then makes a bigger claim that small talk is a bad norm.

But there's actually lots of reason to think that small talk is good. Lots of people engage in small talk, and they do it for good reason.

The main purpose of small talk is building social bonds. It's the verbal equivalent of primates grooming each other. We can use those increased bonds for various purposes. Sometimes that's getting to know more about someone so you can ask them more interesting questions. Sometimes it's building a network of friends you can call on for things. And sometimes it's setting up the trust needed to engage in deeper conversations.

Small talk is often a necessary prelude to deeper conversation. Most people can't engage in deep conversations without first establishing a level of trust with the people they're talking with. They don't feel comfortable sharing until they know how others will react.

So even if you don't like small talk, it's good to get good at small talk because many people like small talk and even need it to have the bigger conversations you may want to have. You might try to avoid people who like small talk, but that only kind of works. Eventually you need to interact with the wider majority of society that wants to engage in small talk, so learning how to talk small is a useful life skill that can reap the many benefits that come from building stronger connections with other people.

Okay, so, given that, how do you get good at small talk? A few tips:

  • Listen carefully to the things people who are good at carrying on conversations do. What things do they often say and do that keep the conversation going?
  • If it helps, memorize a few good small talk questions. If you don't like the typical stuff like "what do you do?" you might try a few of these ones I've liked:
    • what's something that's caught your interest lately?
    • how do you know [host of the party, another person in your conversation, etc.]?
    • if you could do anything or go anywhere, what would you do?
  • Practice active listening skills like looking at the person speaking and occasionally making noises to indicate that you're listening. This can strangely start to make the conversation more interesting after 30s.
  • Be okay with lulls. The other person will also want to fill the silence, so if you don't do it the other person will. And also nothing is wrong with being quiet for a few moments in a conversation.

I'm sure that if you really want to get good at small talk you can find some books or courses on the subject.

Finally, it's also okay to just talk about the same old boring topics. Things I've talked about with dozens to hundreds of people having nearly the same conversation each time include the weather, traffic, vacation spots, the economy, Prop 13[2], sports, art, and music. The thing about small talk is that the topic of conversation is not that important. If it helps, think of it as a game to hold a conversation where no information is exchanged. Since social bonding is the point, the content isn't nearly as important as listening and sharing.

  1. ^

    There are salt flats in the south end of the San Francisco Bay and the Dumbarton bridge takes you over them.

  2. ^

    This one only works if you live in urban California.


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9 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:10 AM

And, also, there are certain things that use the same skills as good small talk but add in being vulnerable, that are extremely important sorts of talk. If you're tired of small talk, maybe think about how you can take a conversation about the weather and use it to lay bare your innermost self.

I think of small talk as being like the starter motor in a car. You need it to get the main engine going, but it won't drive the car on its own.

I love this post. 

As far as observations go, small talk from my point of view is to see other peoples attitudes, but information value of small talks drops after a while as everything was said. 

Small talk does not mean people will like you though or know you better or necessarily lead to anything good. It just means that if by chance someone shares your attitudes you might bond over the fact you have same attitudes and then conversation leads to better chance of having something more meaningful to say. 

However people are from different walks of life often times live different lives and have different habits. 

I barely registered the difference between small talk and big talk

I am still confused about what "small talk" is after reading this post.

Sure, talking about the weather is definitely small talk. But if I want to get to know somebody, weather talk can't possibly last for more than 30 seconds. After that, both parties have demonstrated the necessary conversational skills to move on to more interesting topics. And the "getting to know each other" phase is really just a spectrum between surface level stuff and your deepest personal secrets, so I don't really see where you would draw the line between small and deep talk.

One situation I struggle with on the other hand is when I would rather avoid talking to a person at all, and so I want to maintain the shallowest possible level of small talk. (Ideally I could tell them that "sorry, I would rather just not talk to you right now", but that's not really socially accepted.)


Ideally I could tell them that "sorry, I would rather just not talk to you right now", but that's not really socially accepted.

You can show disinterest or make up excuses to leave the social interaction. These behaviors are a lot worse, IMO, than just telling them straight up, but these are the socially accepted methods. Talking about sociopathic tendencies in the general public...


Small talk is a hobby

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