Last week, I was at a store waiting in an absurdly long line. The woman in front of me turned around and said, "Wow, this is going to take forever!" To which I responded, "I know, right? Why don't they open up another lane? This is just ridiculous." Then, the woman procedded to compliment me on my shirt. I said thank you and asked her where she got her shoes. Yadda yadda yadda. To make a long story short, we ended up talking for the entire time we were in line, which was about 35 minutes! Once she got close to the end of the line, she asked me if I wanted to join her for lunch. I said yes and off we went.
We walked down the street to this little cafe and grabbed a table. We ate, we talked, and we laughed. We just seemed to click. We were both good at small talk and self-disclosure, so it wasn't difficult to keep the conversation going. By the end of our lunch, I knew a lot about this woman. I knew that she is originally from Fairfax, VA (which happens to be very close to my hometown of Adelphi, MD), works in marketing, likes watching trashy reality shows (you know, like this one), is married to a fireman, has a dog named Bob, and among many other things, buys a lot of her shoes from DSW. The conversation was great. We exchanged emails and are planning to hang out again soon. Who knew that I could make a new friend by talking to a stranger in an absurdly long line? Well, researchers have known this for quite some time.
According to Kellerman (1991), "conversation is one of the most basic and fundamental means that persons use to become acquainted" (p. 385). Additionally, Dindia & Timmerman (2003) claim that "the ability to engage in small talk is a necessary interaction skill" (p. 692). Small talk is used to initiate and sustain interaction with others. Sometimes we start small talk with the hopes of actually starting a relationship with someone else, while other times, we just want to talk to someone while we are doing something that's boring, like sitting in a doctor's waiting room. Whether we're talking to a stranger about the latest Britney Spears fiasco or the disappointing Redskins game the night before, small talk allows us to get to know people and possibly form friendships, or even romances, with them.
Effective small talk about superficial things (like Britney and the Redskins) can springboard the conversation into more personal questions about your hometown, profession, hobbies, and the like. Disclosing information about yourself is another great way to start and maintain a relationship. However, there are guidelines for self-disclosing (Trenholm & Jensen, 2008):
1. Make sure that disclosures are appropriate to the topic at hand and fit the flow of the conversation. You want to reduce anxiety in initial interactions, not cause it. If your conversation partner is talking about where he or she is from, you probably shouldn't bring up how you broke your foot last year. It doesn't fit or connect with what your partner was talking about. It'll just make the conversation awkward.
2. Begin with safe, nonrisky disclosures. Don't begin a conversation by disclosing that you were in jail for grand theft auto when you were 20 or that you like going to swinger's clubs. Save this information for later. Instead, start off by disclosing where you're from, where you went to school, or what your hobbies are.
3. Disclose in small doses. There are two parts to this guideline. First, don't disclose everything about yourself all at once. Like I said earlier, save some stuff for later. Second, don't monopolize the conversation. Let the other person disclose some information about him/herself too.
4. Match the level and amount of the other's disclosure. Again, you don't want to create an awkward situation by disclosing something very personal about yourself when the conversation is not headed in that direction. For instance, if your conversation partner is talking about his or her hometown, it would be appropriate for the conversation to logically move to how many siblings you have because these two topics are at about the same level of intimateness. However, for most people, it would not be appropriate for the conversation about hometowns to shift towards talking about religious beliefs. In the same respect, you should try to match the other person's amount of self-disclosure. For instance, it would be inappropriate for you to disclose for 10 minutes when your partner has only disclosed for 2 or 3.
5. Remember that style of disclosure is as important as substance. Be conscious of your nonverbal behaviors.
6. Reserve your most important disclosures for significant, ongoing relationships. Don't just tell anyone that you like to watch porn every Tuesday night. You might want to save that one for someone you feel really close to.
My advice: talk to people, make friends, and who knows, you might just find your one true love with just a little small talk.
- Dindia, K., & Timmerman, L. (2003). Accomplishing romantic relationships. In J. O. Green & B. R. Burleson (Eds.), Handbook of communication and social interaction skills (pp. 685-721). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Kellerman, K. (1991). The conversation MOP II. Progression through scenes in discourse. Human Communication Research, 17, 385-414.
- Trenholm, S., & Jensen, A. (2008). Interpersonal communication. New York: Oxford University Press.
For more information about how small talk and self-disclosure can initiate relationships, see the following resources: