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Think twice the next time you chitchat

Lonny Cain
Lonny Cain

“Cut the small talk”

Geez. I feel like I should be shoving a gun into your ribs and scowling as I mutter that command.

I guess I’ve heard it enough in movies.

Let me start again.

“You should strongly consider cutting the small talk in your social circles and daily conversations.”

I’m talking science now. No tough talk.

First, thank you Marcel Schwantes for bringing this to my attention in a piece he penned for

He gets to the point pretty quick.

“As it turns out, the types of conversations you're engaging in truly matter for your personal well-being,” he writes.

Then he runs down the science, starting with a 2010 research study at the University of Arizona and Washington University in St. Louis.

They looked at the types of conversations that left people happy or unhappy.

More than 20,000 daily conversations were recorded among 79 participants over four days. The results were printed in “Psychological Science.”

“The happiest participants had twice as many genuine conversations and one third as much small talk as the unhappiest participants,” Schwantes notes.

“These findings suggest that the happy life is social and conversationally deep rather than isolated and superficial. The research has also confirmed what most people know but don't practice: surface level small talk does not build relationships.”

This idea jumped from the research pages into the party circuit.

Schwantes tells of two behavioral scientists who hosted a dinner party where small talk was banned.

Kristen Berman and Dan Ariely, co-founders of a behavioral consulting firm, said the happy index went up without the small talk.

They outlined their experience for “Wired” magazine.

“What is your relationship with God? What is something you fear in life? These may be great topics for conversations, but we rarely tackle such meaty topics at social gatherings,” they wrote.

“Instead, our discussions usually center around summer travel plans, the latest home repair horror story and, of course, the weather.”

Most people fall into the trap of picking topics that are socially acceptable and easy to deal with, they noted.

In other words, boring. Thus the unhappy factor.

Their party experiment had rules: show up on time and no small talk.

Plus, index cards were handed out with “conversation starters.”

“The 27 gender-mixed guests discussed if and how to hold public officials accountable for their actions,” they reported. “We found out who (besides our significant other) would give up a kidney if we needed one.”

Schwantes tossed out more examples in his Inc. article.

Carolina Gawroski turned the idea into a business in Hong Kong through No Small Talk dinners.

Her rules: no phones and no small talk and, again, talking prompts are provided.

Sean Bisceglia, a partner in a private equity firm, uses the idea for Jefferson-style dinners.

Basic idea is the same but conversation is around the whole table with no side conversations.

I do agree small talk can be mind-numbing.

Gawroski, via, says she bans questions like: “What do you do?” and “Where are you from?”

“Instead, talk about who is their favorite parent, and what's the most expensive thing they've ever stolen,” she says.

Her expanded directions include:

• Be comfortable with yourself; it is the first step to be comfortable with others, and in the world.

• Embrace and share your flaws and weakness; it is the first step to overcome them.

• Don’t judge; what you think of others says more about you, than them.

• Keep an open mind. Challenge your own beliefs.

• Learn and be inspired by others; everyone has something to teach.

• Trust the NST community. What is said at NST, stays at NST.

I have to say. I like the idea.

But I also like knowing what people do for a living and where they live.

I should confess there are times when small talk is an easy way to not talk.

Just don’t feel like it, sometimes.

Now the experts have an answer for that, too.

If you don’t feel like talking, then don’t come to the party.

Point taken. Could be I am the problem.

In fact, looking at talking points posed by Marcel Schwantes, I see questions I should be asking myself anyway.

Such as:

What book has influenced you the most?

What's the most important thing I should know about you?

When and where were you happiest in your life?

What do you think is the driving force in your life?

Good questions.

All I need now is someone to shove a gun into my gut to get the ball rolling with that simple command:

“Cut the small talk.”

LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the former managing editor of The Times, now retired. Please email thoughts, comments or ideas to or mail care of The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.

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