Illustration credit: Caitlin Kuhwald
Small talk gets no respect. Flip through the stacks and stacks (literal or virtual) of books and articles on the topic, and you’ll see that it’s cast as manipulative or mercenary: it’s what you do to get the girl, get the sale, or get the job. It’s called the “grease” or the “glue” of social interaction; neither of those metaphors is particularly appealing, unless you’re a counter cook or a collage artist.
The purported collective disdain for small talk makes it all the more interesting to me that Facebook, which consists almost entirely of small talk, has gotten such traction, adding a million members a day. What size talk do we want, and why does it matter?
If you’ve ever answered “how are you” with “fine” when you had a migraine, kids home with the flu, a killer deadline, or a philandering spouse, you know the value of small talk. The truth is that we don’t want to explain everything to everyone all the time. There are people with whom we don’t want to share much, and people with whom we want to share later, or in our kitchen instead of in the office. Small talk is one of the many tools we have for regulating our relationships with others, and for modulating our own moods.
Choosing to chat
It’s small talk that lets us explore common interests and values and sensibilities with new people we meet. If you can’t make small talk, it’s hard to know with whom you want to make big talk. If you don’t chat, it’s hard for people to know that you’re open to a new relationship, that you’re curious about them. That’s likely behind the results of a study at the Stanford University School of Business, which tracked MBAs for 10 years after graduation. They found that students’ ability to hold conversations correlated strongly with later success, while grade point averages did not.
And a patchwork of studies show that physical health is influenced by feelings of happiness, and happiness is influenced by feeling safe, having a sense of control, and participation in community. An online social network can’t fill that whole need for community. But a study at Michigan State University actually connected students’ use of Facebook with their ability to function in real-world campus life. Facebook helped the students to make new connections, deepen relationships, and keep them over time. But most importantly, use of Facebook helped build those skills among people who started with low satisfaction and low self-esteem.
Somehow a barrage of lowly status updates–those one-line statements about what we’re doing or thinking–has that kind of uplifting effect. I’ve got a couple of theories as to why. The first is the curious effect of talking about oneself in third person (“Lois is baking death-by-chocolate brownies”): It introduces a certain distance that makes it easier to be objective about what’s going on–and much harder to whine.
The second is the ethos of the community. Everyone’s experience of Facebook is different, of course, depending on the members of each particular community. But in the Facebook place where I hang out, people are generally cheerful–or at least matter-of-fact–about what they’re up to or against. When I think about my own updates, being human, I’m likely to be influenced by that tone. If I were to post a crabby, angry, or dark status update, it would get real attention.
Talk happy to be happy
Does that mean we’re lying to each other? I don’t think so. Acting happy can put us into a happier frame of mind, according to David Myers, author of The Pursuit of Happiness. “Talk as if you feel positive self-esteem, are optimistic, and are outgoing. Going through the motions can trigger the emotions.” And happiness is contagious, so if you’re hanging out with people who at least talk as though they feel good about themselves, you’re likely to feel good about yourself, too.
It’s possible to be intimidated by the status update–either posting your own or reading others. I myself fall prey to the occasional bout of envy (Will Anne’s vacation never end? Does Nancy work out every day? Why does Carla have more time to cook than I seem to?) but I am equally often inspired by the tremendous variety of voices and lives among my friends. My favorite description of the opportunity offered by the status update is “spontaneous bursts of joy and being.” If that’s what we’re sharing with each other, how can our lives not be richer?
Finally, Facebook can help us stay connected over time, distance, and changing life circumstances. One of the findings from the study of MSU students was that for students who scored low in “well-being measures,” the ability to stay connected with friends from high school or hometowns helped them bridge into their new campus community; it “offset feelings of ‘friendsickness,’ the distress caused by the loss of old friends.” I experienced a similar thing when I left a fairly large company to work on my own. There was less grieving to do knowing that I could stay in touch with friends and former colleagues–without making it a full-time job. As one friend said, “It’s nice to reconnect with people from the past without thinking, ‘Oh, we should have them over for dinner!’”
I’ve got sympathy for the handwringing about how Facebook is changing relationships. Yes, I sometimes need to use a timer to avoid losing an hour when I mean to spend five minutes catching up. Yes, sometimes I click “hide” when I’ve just learned too much about someone I don’t know well. Yes, we still need to throw dinner parties, inviting the people we want to spend real time with and getting to bigger talk sooner. Or not. Because we’re still, ultimately, online or in person, in charge of the size of our talk.