Our need to make polite chitchat has deep anthropological roots

Small talk can lead to big things.
Small talk can lead to big things.
Image: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
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It can be quite fashionable to talk trash on small talk. I’m an introvert, one might say when declining an invitation to a networking event or dinner party. Or, I have no time for idle chitchat.

There’s a dinner party series called “No Small Talk” that encourages hosts to ban polite queries like “where are you from?” from their tables, in favor of probing, personal questions.

Even professional talkers claim to loathe small talk. “I’d rather talk about deep subjects,” comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres told the Today Show. “I’d rather talk about meditation, or the world, or the trees, or animals than small, inane, you know, banter.”

But to become impatient with the seemingly superficial subjects we default to when small talk is required is to miss the point. Anthropologists believe that the urge to engage in small talk is rooted in our deepest natures as social creatures, and that these seemingly inconsequential exchanges have tremendous value to us as individuals and societies.

The rules and subjects of polite chatter vary across cultures, but the desire to connect does not.

One of the earliest discussions of the anthropological value of small talk appeared in a seminal 1923 linguistics textbook entitled The Meaning of Meaning. “Throughout the Western world it is agreed that people must meet frequently, and that it is not only agreeable to talk, but that it is a matter of common courtesy to say something even when there is hardly anything to say,” authors C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards wrote. In a supplementary essay, anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski argued that this urge was hardly unique to Western society, and that such deceptively superficial chitchat had much deeper significance.

Malinowski argued that small talk, which he called “phatic communication,” was a means of obtaining one of humanity’s primary objectives: the company of other humans. To utter a pleasantry in a language understood by the listener, he posited, is a sign that the speaker comes in peace, the verbal equivalent of extending a weapon-free hand (to borrow a popular theory on the origin of the handshake).

“The modern English expression, ‘Nice day to-day’ or the Melanesian phrase, ‘Whence comest thou?’ are needed to get over the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence,” Malinowski wrote. “Each utterance is an act serving the direct aim of binding hearer to speaker by a tie of some social sentiment or other.”

The rhythms of polite chatter are also surprisingly consistent across cultures. When researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands recorded conversations in 10 different languages around the world, they found striking similarities in the pacing of friendly conversations. Whether in Lao, Italian, or ≠Akhoe Hai//om (a Khoisan language spoken in Namibia) the gap between conversational turns lasts an average of just 200 milliseconds. Speaking to journalist Ed Yong, author Stephen Levinson described this shared need to fill silences as a “basic metabolism of human social life.”

So at the next networking function or dinner party, there is no need to berate yourself or others for defaulting to polite observations on the weather when at a loss for words. Small talk establishes connections without crossing boundaries, and gives new acquaintances a chance to safely feel out if they share interests more significant than the quality of their host’s appetizer selection. Small talk is perhaps best defined as the words we utter when we’re more interested in the act of talking with another person than in the subject of the talk itself.