What's the Value of Chitchat, Small Talk and Banter?


You answer the phone for a business call and announce yourself. The other person does the same. What next? Do you ask about their weekend, how their work is going or how they are navigating the pandemic? Do you launch into a discussion of politics or global climate-change theories? Or do you stay quiet and wait for the other person to start a conversation?

In her best-selling book, "The Fine Art of Small Talk," author Debra Fine emphasizes that you should assume the burden of conversation.

"If you generally wait for someone else to take the initiative in a conversation, you have been self-centered," she said.

Instead, Fine said, "The first step in becoming a great conversationalist is becoming invested in the conversation and actively working to help the other person feel comfortable."

Small talk, chitchat or banter is how most conversations get started and where camaraderie and rapport are initiated. Whether the conversation starts with a discussion of how everyone's day is going, what the weather is doing or how slow the project is progressing, small talk introduces people in the conversation to the discussion.

It's a welcome -- a greeting of sorts.

I recently connected with a transitioning sailor on a mentoring call. We each introduced ourselves, and he immediately shot out, "So, how do I build a brand that promotes my values of compassion, generosity and problem solving?"

It felt too abrupt and direct for the conversation.

Instead, if he had introduced himself and then shared, "So, I have the pleasure of being in the beautiful city of Jacksonville, Florida. Where are you today, Lida?" we would have spent a few minutes talking about our towns, perhaps comparing notes about our NFL teams and then jumping into a more focused conversation with more rapport and familiarity.

A recent article points to author and speaker Simon Sinek's message around the need for small talk as individuals find themselves forced to social distance during the global pandemic. Today more than ever before, Sinek suggests, we need to start every conversation, discussion, meeting and interview by checking in on each other.

Asking, "How are you?" or, "Are you OK?" and then waiting for the reply shows genuine empathy and care. Giving white space to a conversation to allow the person you're speaking with to volunteer how they are feeling and where they may need assistance is more crucial than ever.

Small talk and chitchat might feel inefficient and unimportant given the direct nature of communication in most military briefings and conversations, but in the civilian sector, it matters. Civilians are more relational and experiential, and connecting with someone often starts with a few pleasantries exchanged at the outset.

From there, commonalities, shared interests and goals, and mutual benefits can be explored, leading to rewarding relationships and business pursuits.

Next time you have a job interview, networking conversation, mentoring session, business meeting or even a conversation with a peer, start the discussion by checking in with them, making small talk and spending time to establish the tone for the rest of the conversation.

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