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Awkward Silence: Why Small Talk Makes You Happier and More Productive

By Contributed content 22 February 2018
Anyone who’s been caught at the office water cooler discussing the weather knows that making small talk isn‘t as easy as it sounds. Chatting with strangers can be awkward, especially for the more introverted among us. But there is an art to it, and it can be mastered. Simon Gillow, media director of theDesk co-working space, tells us more.

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“Don’t talk to strangers,” our parents told us. And many of us took their advice literally. We keep ourselves to ourselves on the MTR or bus. And we shy away from small talk when we share a desk at work. It seems we prefer splendid isolation rather than the risk of striking up a conversation with a stranger. But recent studies show that our awkwardness means we’re missing opportunities for both increased happiness and greater productivity. In fact, you’ll be surprised by how much small talk benefits you.

The Sound of Silence

Until recently most studies have focused on what are called ‘strong ties’. These are the conversations we have with our close friends and family. No surprise to learn that these are sustaining and give us the sense of belonging and warmth we know and love. More recent research, however, has shifted towards interactions between ‘weak ties’. A barista is one example. Others include your taxi driver, the person next to you on the bus and, of course, co-workers sharing the same co-working space, like theDesk.

Big Small Talk

Small talk works like magic. Chats are often brief, for example, commenting on the weather when we’re at the coffee machine, or offering to get someone a coffee in the hot desk spaces. Sometimes conversations go on longer. I remember a taxi ride from the airport where the driver chatted with me in English the whole way to Shau Kei Wan, sharing tales about his life, his family, and how Hong Kong had changed. The trip went by in a flash. I even volunteered a tip. Rare, indeed. But many of us feel awkward about striking up a conversation with a stranger. Why do we feel this way? Is it that we prefer solitude to finding connection with the people around us?

Leave Me in Peace

One reason is a fear of rejection. We may harbour the feeling of having nothing in common with a stranger. We imagine the person won’t be interested in what we have to say. This belief is nonsense, the research suggests. It even has a name; ‘pluralistic ignorance’. We look around and see people not talking and we assume they don’t want to, but researchers found that everyone is more interested in talking than they believe. A recent study from the University of Chicago invited commuters on trains, public buses, and in taxis to strike up a conversation. And what did they find? Even though the conversation starters expected a negative experience, both parties reported a more positive journey than those who sat in silence. It appears that we seriously misunderstand the consequences of social connection. We allows ourselves to believe that isolation is more pleasant than chatting with a stranger.

Community Chit Chat

“For me, small talk is a fantastic way to understand a person, to look beyond the job roles and work identity,” says Polina Sarafanova, community manager at theDesk. “It makes interactions more human and reveals the multifaceted nature of each of us.” Polina’s role is far more than front desk, it’s about fostering interaction to help people establish the essential relationships that they need and expect in a co-working space. “I like to start a chat while people have a cup of coffee or during lunch. These are the times when members what to take a break, relax and talk about things outside work.” For Polina, small talk offers the opportunity to build deeper bonds and connect people, part of theDesk’s inclusive community approach. “Members and neighbours are usually eager to share their experiences, whether it’s about the past weekend, travel, or everyday life. It’s how I learn about their interests, passions outside work, or current pain points. I've been astonished by the way our members combine full-time work with personal interests: writing a book, filming a short movie, managing an NGO, or even starting a craft beer project. This list is endless, it’s incredible,” she says.

Social and Emotional Connection

Polina’s experience is backed up by the research. Regular small talk with the people around us leads to better social and emotional well-being. It fulfils our basic human need to belong. A conversation with a stranger means you’re seen and acknowledged. Feeling better is fantastic, but what the studies also show is that these brief interactions also boost our ability to focus, plan, prioritise, and organise. In short, small talk makes you better at work. So how can we get past our awkwardness? In co-working spaces, we may worry that we’re disturbing people from their work. After all, we’re all aware of how unwanted interruptions can break your chain of thought and distract from the task at hand. “Small talk is different from other ways of interaction in a workspace,” Polina explains, “because it doesn’t have an fixed outcome or goal in mind. It’s interpersonal, not transactional. Our roles in the conversation are more fluid. You are there talking to another person who, like you, only wants to take a break.”

Four Steps to Better Small Talk

#1 Be Available

Sure, it’s great to listen to music when you work, but the result can be that you create a barrier. Many people use headphones to signal that they’re focused on work and not open to chatting. No problem. But surely not all the time? Let people in and the chance of connecting increases.

#2 Listen and Ask

It can be tough. What do you say? What if they don’t reply? If you’re feeling awkward, have some go-to questions you can pull out of the bag. They don’t need to be complicated. They’re only to get you started if your meeting new people. "How long have you been a member here?, How do you know...?, and I didn’t realise you were a graphic designer / lawyer / content writer, are all great conversation starters.

#3 Be Purposeful

You know what a self-fulfiling prophecy is, right? If you approach small talk thinking it’s dull and unimportant, it probably will be. Quash your negative thoughts of ‘I hate this,’ or ‘When can I leave?’ and keep in mind that small talk isn’t a waste of time. It helps you build the foundation for more meaningful conversations and richer relationships. Think of small talk as the sumptuous starter before a main meal.

#4 Be Interested

When you truly listen you discover that each of us has wonderful stories to share. Showing interest is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to interaction. Listen with attention. Ask questions to find out more. Clearly, there’s a balance to this. No one wants an interrogation. But we all have the capacity to feel interest. When it comes to small talk, showing interest is the catalyst for people to open up and share.

Relax and Enjoy

We’re not all super extroverts. Some of us are quieter types. But research shows that small talk has a significant effect on our well being and can lead to better productivity. As Polina says, “Small talk doesn’t need a purpose. There’s no pressure to make an impression on another person. It is all about the process, and it brings warmth to our everyday connections.”
Read more! Explore our Careers section and check out the 12 Best Co-working Spaces in Hong Kong.

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