Why small talk is not a waste of time

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At the workplace, small talk is essentially an informal way of interaction between two or more people on topics that do not serve a function, at least not an official one. These can range anywhere between discussing the weather, the next IPL match or the current news.

Small talk kickstarts a conversation and more often than not, it paves the way for building connections (networking) and having meaningful conversations with colleagues. This is especially true in case of newcomers at a company who find themselves eternally tongue-tied and seek a familiar or a friendly face at their place of work. As Abhay Srivastava, CHRO, IKS Health puts it, “For some of us, small talk is easy to make. Early professionals and introverts would need deliberate practice. They can keep some topics or lines ready, for use when the occasion comes up. They can curate the topics depending upon the audience. Little research into the areas of interest of people around can help pick the right topics.”

Topics for conversation

The beat will differ as hierarchy in a company is considered. Discussing family affairs with the boss may not be welcomed or be as comfortable as it would be discussing with the colleague in the next cubicle. “It has to be a meaningful dialogue — whether it is a few words, a training programme or a communication exercise — which focuses on the individual and the objectives of the organisation,” says NV Balachandar, executive director – HR, Ashok Leyland. Senior managers, especially the ones heading the different functions of a company, have lesser time on their hands. So, sticking to the matter at hand instead of discussing the weather may work better in building a rapport with the higher-ups.

“Even a heart-to-heart WhatsApp conversation happens only because one has built that relationship (over time) with that person, by meeting and interacting with the individual (outside of social media).”

Rajesh Balaji, CHRO, Matrimony.com

As for starting an interaction between co-workers, it can be easily done by sharing information about oneself or choosing an open-ended topic that is easy for both parties or a group. It does not work the same way on social media, where proper humane interaction is absent and responses are often stiff and curt. As Rajesh Balaji, CHRO, Matrimony.com, puts it, “Even a heart-to-heart WhatsApp conversation happens because one has built that relationship (over time) with that person, by meeting and interacting with the individual (outside of social media).”

Engagement and productivity

A seemingly meaningless argument with another colleague is easier to resolve with a human-to-human or heart-to-heart connect between individuals in a physical space. Disengagement from work, and not to mention being on the precipice of anxiety at the thought of a mountain of work, can often be reduced with interaction between colleagues. The next time, instead of warding off annoying colleagues — when they try to discuss the weather or something as harmless as sports — try engaging instead of giving them a monosyllabic reply. Such interactions often pave the way for long-term professional relationships.

“It has to be a meaningful dialogue — whether it is a few words, a training programme or a communication exercise — which focuses on the individual and the objectives of the organisation.”

NV Balachandar, executive director – HR, Ashok Leyland

A happy employee will have lesser problems and this will ensure their growth and boost productivity. Small talks are not only restricted to the employees of a business alone, the clientele and the representatives of a company can also benefit from them. For instance, a particularly stressed-out client who is interacting with a new employee may be hostile or even curt with the nervous employee. Inquiring after their day or being a good listener will earn their trust, and brownie points will follow if they warm up after the small talk between discussing business.

 

Role of HR

The human resources team has a big role to play here. It needs to be the medium to address the communication gap and lack of social connect, especially when a flexible model for work has emerged. The second step is to keep communication portals open and encourage employees to reach out and interact. Fun activities will draw employees and may even initiate small talk online, even though it may not be as good as physical interaction. This has been one of the major challenges for HR during the pandemic.

“For some of us, small talk is easy to make, but early professionals and introverts may need deliberate practice. They can curate the topics depending upon the audience. Some research into the areas of interest of people can help pick the right topics.”

Abhay Srivastava, CHRO, IKS Health 

Echo chambers tend to be built in the absence of cohesion between workers, especially when the social connect is missing today, thanks to the digital wall between them. With most employees struggling to balance their personal and professional lives, and an ‘always on’ trend, small talk is needed now more than ever, to balance the absence of the human presence of another co-worker or senior.

There is no denying that small talk helps build interpersonal skills. Those who indulge in small talk are more likely to go an extra mile for their colleagues and/or their company, even without being asked. Therefore, it is up to the HR to create a conducive environment amidst the work-from-home situation, that will encourage small talk.

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