In praise of small talk
The art of chatting is more important than we usually think. Small talk provides us with lots of information and confirms our social group affiliation, says professor Viveka Adelswärd, who has dedicated her latest book to this subject.
Nonsense, gossip, chatting over coffee, telling tall stories, chatter and bullshitting. There are many names for our small talk!
But it is far from meaningless nonsensical chatting we are engaged in, Viveka Adelswärd, linguist, professor emeritus and author tells us. She has dedicated her latest book “Till struntpratets lov” (“In Praise of Small Talk”) to this subject. The book has in part been inspired by the fact that small talk in academic contexts is often seen as unimportant rubbish, nothing that serious researchers should waste their time on.
“Small talk provides us with lots of information, and helps us to ‘read the atmosphere’. With small talk we probe the human terrain”, she explains.
There are a lot of functions in our social and cultural interaction, but they are so ingrained that we are not even aware of them. These types of issues fascinate interpersonal communication researcher Viveka Adelswärd.
“It involves what we do on a daily basis, but never think about. Just think about how we greet people. It immediately reveals our relationship to them. An unknown person, a close friend, boss, someone we don’t like?”
Like our canine friends, we sniff each other, wag our tails, and show through the way in which we speak how harmless we are. Or signal that people should keep their distance.
How important the art of chatting is becomes especially important when we speak languages other than our own. Or end up in a social situation where we don’t know the ‘codes’.
Small talk in a café
“Conversation patterns are difficult to learn on a theoretic level. People have to participate in conversations to be able to understand how, for example, the mechanics of taking turns during a conversation operate, keeping the conversation going, noticing transitions from subject to subject, or when someone wants to conclude a conversation”, continues Viveka Adelswärd.
“Small talk differs from culture to culture, social groups and contexts, and it also varies between age groups and genders.”
It confirms social group affiliation and that is important in itself. And talking helps us to maintain relationships with the people and things that are close to us – including our potted plants and pets.
“I have heard people in all seriousness say to their dog, “How many times do I need to tell you this?”
And who hasn’t heard someone tell off their wilful computer?
On an individual level small talk also fulfils another function. We formulate our thoughts and ideas while we are talking.
“Suddenly you can hear yourself saying something really interesting and unexpected”, says Viveka Adelswärd.
This is exactly how modern focus groups work, she points out. People talk and in the process develop an opinion on a particular subject.
But not everyone is allowed to just chat. And not just in the way they want either.
We all have very definite opinions that have shifted over time and with trends. Viveka Adelswärd gives an example:
“When I grew up, children weren’t allowed to talk if they didn’t have something specific to say.”
In modern times, the chatty child is encouraged. Children are even trained to speak in front of others. In general, we live in a culture of conversation. Before, everyone knew ‘their place’ – and stayed put. Today we are supposed to be prepared to quickly become part of new groups.
“Now we have to position ourselves and show who we are.”
There is a subtle line between just the right amount of chatting and too much. If someone is thought to be talking too much, it is often a woman. During a study of employment interviews that Viveka Adelswärd did, there was the question, ‘do you think you talk too much’.
“Women understood immediately. Men thought that the question was strange…”
Do women in general talk more? Or is men’s small talk so accepted that we do not even notice it?
In any case, the person who is quiet is more likely to be seen as serious than the person who is talkative, and many women experience that they hold themselves back from talking too much.
Eavesdropping is one of the conversation researchers’ tools. Listening to people talking on the mobile phone does not require listening in secret. How has technology influenced talking?
“With the mobile phone we can be in touch with friends immediately. This is especially clear when travelling by train. If something happens, everyone takes out their mobile phones and calls someone to tell them what happened. It is not their fellow passengers they turn to.”
The possibility of being able to contact friends means that we are less likely to make new acquaintances, for example while travelling. A negative aspect according to some researchers.
Viveka Adelswärd does not take a stand on that point, but has an enlightening story to tell. About a woman who loved working in her garden, but after a year of being sick she needed someone to help her with her gardening.
“She really looked forward to being able to talk to a skilful person about her garden.
The man that came talked continuously while working – but only into his mobile tele¬phone.”
Text: Gunilla Pravitz
Photo: Vibeke Mathiesen
Viveka Adelswärd is a linguist and Professor Emeritus in Communication at Linköping University. The main focus of her research has been how people understand and misunderstand each other in every day conversation.
Last updated: 2012-01-20