The Hidden Benefits of Small Talk

Pleasantries lead to trust

small talkWhat do we do when we meet someone new? We engage in small talk. “What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do for a living?” We probe for something in common to start the conversation and keep it rolling. We do this naturally at social gatherings.

Is this just idle conversation? No. It turns out that there’s method to our madness. Besides breaking the ice, it’s a way for our subconscious to determine if the person we meet is friend or foe. And exchanging pleasantries, their subconscious is doing the same to us.

Unseen signals

Our ancient, hidden brain protects us. Silent and vigilant, our reflexive half watches and alerts us to imminent danger. Thanks to our evolutionary history, we’re hardwired to pick up subtle signals indicating whether or not we can trust someone new. Our subconscious automatically evaluates a person’s physical appearance, eye contact, proximity and myriad other nonverbal cues to instantly decide whether we should approach or avoid.

Our first exchanges in small talk then confirm our intuition. As we experience a moment of connection, realizing the person is “one of our tribe,” our subconscious relaxes. As we feel more comfortable and engaged in conversation, we even mimic each other’s behaviors. If the person we talk to leans forward we suddenly notice we do the same. Scientists say it’s reflexive social signaling, something we’re born with. We automatically match each other’s use of words, too.[1]

When we feel safe with someone, small talk often leads to big talk. We begin to share more of ourselves, talking about our mutual interests, frustrations, hopes and dreams. As we learn to trust, acquaintances become friends.

The business of trust

When it comes to our commercial dealings, however, we tend to forget the pleasantries and get right down to business. After all, time is money. We assume people don’t want to be kept on the phone any longer than they have to. Lost, however, is a moment of connection that paves the way to trusting relationships.

What’s the downside? Customer loyalty research shows that the strength of personal attachment is a primary driver in customer retention.[2] The level of trust one has in a technology, brand, and day-to-day contacts is especially important when it comes to risky purchasing situations.[3] When we ignore the process of building relationships, we pass up a golden opportunity because first impressions really matter. We humans naturally make snap judgments and tend to stick with our beliefs, so if we fumble establishing trust with our customers at the outset, they may choose someone else downstream.

Slow down. Connect personally and professionally, and then get to business. Use tools like LinkedIn to do your homework and use small talk to your advantage. And when you and your peers make moments of connection a systematic practice, you’ll enjoy better business relationships and all the benefits that come from them.

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[1] Ireland, M., Slatcher, R., Eastwick, P., Scissors, L., Finkel, E., and Pennebaker, J. (2010). Language style matching predicts relationship initiation and stability. Psychological Science, vol. 22, 1: pp. 39-44.

[2] Gremlera, D. and Brown, S. (1996). Service loyalty: Its nature, importance, and implications. University of Idaho and Arizona State University, USA

[3] Ruyter, K. Moorman, L. and Lemmink, L. (2001). Antecedents of commitment and trust in customer–supplier relationships in high technology markets. Industrial Marketing Management 30, 271–286