The science of small talk

Ian (not his real name): "Can I get you a beer?" (Grabing another beer from the roving server's tray and handing it to me.)

Me: "Don't, please, but thank you. So sorry, but I honestly do not know how to extend this small talk further." (Then I leave the reception area and head back to my hotel room.)

That is how poor and lost I am when required to do small talk. I was so lucky though that Ian was quite forgiving and emailed me a few days after we had all gone home from that international event. He said "you actually left me there holding two beers." I apologized to him and told him that I really did not mean to be rude but that my incompetence for small talk is quite serious.

I am one of those who have justified my own inadequacy for casual talk by saying that unless it is a conversation about really important things, then it is probably not worth having. But while my admitted inadequacy is an explanation, it is not an excuse to be rude and refuse craft beer.

Like many things in my life, science usually rescues me from my own made-up theories about why I behave the way I do. And while it may not instantly repair my broken skill for small talk, I think it has helped me start to mend.

A study I had come across a few years ago started this shift in my thinking about the value of small talk. That research observed casual conversations in 10 languages and noted a striking pattern: people took great care not to overlap when talking, but they were also not allowing long silences in between their turns in the conversation. There were only about 200 milliseconds in between turns. This was observed across cultures, which meant that there is a great chance that this is a fundamental truth about humans – that we are wired to connect even in this seemingly superficial level.

This constant roar of the river of chat within us that rises to the surface and comes out as "small talk" seems to be one of the most striking traits that define us as humans. It is not so much about having something to say but that we always have to connect, and saying something is a way to do so. Anthropologists like the main author of the study I mentioned, Stephen Levinson, coined it best when he said in an interview in The Atlantic that this is the "basic metabolism of human social life."

A friend of mine who used to be a dean of a medical school told me that when he gets in the elevator, he notices that students will look at their phones instead of enduring the "awkward moment." It is awkward indeed, not because there is anything that the people in the elevator are doing to cause the awkward moment. Instead, it comes from the basic nature of humans to connect when they are around each other that being enclosed in an elevator and not doing so is unnatural. I guess knowing that you will be with each other only for a few seconds through the ride would require your brains to make some calculations about how much time you really have to connect. So most of us simply endure the unnatural silence of an elevator ride with others. Or, as my friend pointed out, we look at our phones as poor surrogates for that dialogue we could have had with another human being.

That study I mentioned was followed by a 2016 study which further looked at the dynamic of turn-taking in casual conversations, what it means for language as dialogue, and how it has evolved in human history. We have been talking for so long that most of us simply take it for granted and we just do this because we can.

I think understanding that there really is more to a conversation than the "topic" is what helped me a lot in revising my view of small talk. First of all, it has expanded my interests, because some of these small talks lead to things I would not have otherwise known if I had stuck to the things that only interested me. In a recent conversation I had with one of our cleaning crew when he hitched a ride with me, I learned that some street sweepers are hired and paid P50 to P100 for 2 hours, and that the sweepers have to have their own brooms. I also learned that some phone snatchers are so strategic that they can even swipe phones from tired commuters through bus windows.

Second, it has made me more aware of how the presence of another person before me is what seals the everyday deal of being human. I am reminded by science that an encounter is more than just about the topics I am so passionate to explore. This means I cannot pick humans according to the topics they can competently talk about. The human who holds the views on those topics comes to me not just a topic presenter, but the beholder, and that I should acknowledge his or her multidimensional presence even in small talk.

Lastly, understanding the science behind small talk remedies my anxiety about small talk. It makes it more possible for me now to try small talk and perhaps even enjoy it. I guess the only thing that is "small" in small talk is when you think it really is. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at