For me, small talk is a gentle bridge to real and meaningful connection.
I’m an introvert, and I have a confession to make: I like small talk. As a social care worker, I’ve come to understand that small talk can make a big difference. I’ve learned that it’s a skill that requires authenticity and attention to subtlety, and I no longer subscribe to the view that it’s incompatible with introversion. I know, but hear me out…
As introverts, we often share a dislike of small talk. We bond over stories of how chit-chat drains our energy reserves, and we assume that fulfilment can only be found in conversations that go deep. But what if that’s not always true? What if sometimes, for some of us, small talk represents a gentle bridge to real and meaningful connection?
Changing Your Perception of Small Talk
My previous aversion to small talk was — and I’m sure this is true for many introverts — the consequence of one too many “introvert hangovers.” The exhaustion we “quiet ones” feel as a result of forcing ourselves to be “on” in social situations is real. The energy slump that follows is a tangible, physiological reaction to overstimulation, and it’s something we actively seek to avoid. Little wonder then that we think of small talk as the conversational equivalent to “empty calories,” eating into our precious energy quota without providing substantive rewards.
And yet, as a support worker, I’ve found that deep work requires small talk. My role is predominantly working alone in community settings with people who, for one reason or another, need a little support. I’ve worked with young people with learning disabilities, adults with mental health conditions, and older people with dementia. It’s a job well-suited to introverts. There’s no open-plan office to contend with; instead, I meet people in their own homes or in low-key settings, such as cafes and libraries. I also help people access community activities, but for the most part, this tends to be small groups of like-minded people.
It’s meaningful work, largely oriented around one-on-one conversations. It requires me to pay close attention to the person I’m with, to listen (an introvert strength!), and to really understand their situation. Everybody’s story is different, but if there’s one unifying factor to be found among such diversity, it’s small talk. And, over time, I’ve come to realize that small talk is something that, as an introvert, I’m surprisingly well-suited for engaging in.
Small Talk in a Helping Profession
Linguistically, small talk is considered to be a form of phatic communication, serving a social function as opposed to providing information. It’s a sort of social lubricant that helps us ease into conversations, form relational bonds, and maintain social boundaries. So it should come as no surprise that small talk is a core skill for health and social care workers.
Meaningful therapeutic relationships cannot be formed overnight. It is utterly unreasonable to expect anyone to share thoughts of value without first feeling comfortable and at ease. So I begin by asking about the small things in life: the weather, television, music, food. Neutral topics that pose no threat, interspersed with material of greater consequence: work, relationships, and health.
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At first glance, it’s a style of communication that seems ill-suited to introverts. Small talk. Yet it’s impossible for me to provide my clients with effective support without first understanding the realities of their day-to-day lives. And through this seemingly inconsequential chit-chat, I come to understand my client’s world. The television programs they watch, the company they keep, the shops they frequent, the food they eat. This is the stuff of everyday life, and I recognize it for what it is — the essential building blocks of trust.
Small talk allows us to spend time together, without the client feeling pressured to reveal personal information before they are ready. It allows them to gently test the water, as they cautiously disclose something of consequence. As trust grows, confidences deepen. Should they begin to feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed, they can seek refuge once again in the safety of neutral topics. For my part, weaving back and forth between the deep and the neutral requires focus, sensitivity, and attention to subtlety — and these skills are well-matched to the introvert temperament.
Sometimes, with some clients, entire relationships are predicated on small talk. Clients with advanced dementia, for example, may no longer be able to hold deep conversations. Instead, we sit together in easy companionship, and we delve into small talk with wholehearted abandon. We grumble amicably that the weather is too hot, or too cold, or too wet. They tell me what their mother cooked many years ago. I ask what music they like, already knowing what the answer is going to be, because we have had this conversation many, many times before. And tomorrow, we will do it all again.
It’s something I’m rather good at, and as an introvert, I’m not the exception to the rule. In my 20-something years in social care, I’ve worked alongside both extroverted and introverted colleagues, and the sector benefits from the diversity we bring. My extroverted colleagues light up the room with gregarious personalities, energizing patients and group situations. Among my introverted colleagues, however, there is a gentler, more tempered approach. And when we are working with vulnerable people, the gentler approach is often exactly what is needed.
Embracing Small Talk as an Introvert
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain tells us that introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of the job they do or the people they love. But when it comes to small talk, introverts don’t need to emulate extroverts. We simply need to find our own rhythm.
I’ve come to embrace the value of small talk and to see it as a bridge to genuine human connection. And this, I think, is why small talk in meaningful relationships feels very different to the small talk we encounter in anonymous social gatherings and parties. As long as the relationship has professional or personal meaning, I’ve found that small talk does not have to be a big energy drain.
That’s not to say that I don’t ever come home from work feeling frazzled and in need of restorative time, but I’m pretty sure that’s true of anyone, in any job. And it’s not to say that I actively seek out the social stimulation of small talk outside work. While extroverts recharge their batteries by embracing the weekend social swirl, I crave quiet nights in, books by the fire, and long country walks. But on my quiet travels, should I happen upon a friend who has a penchant for small talk, you won’t find me running for the hills. For, just like my job, small talk can lead to the meaningful connections that we introverts so cherish.
You might like:
- 5 Ways for Introverts to Turn Small Talk Into ‘Deep’ Talk
- There’s an Important Reason Why Introverts Should Be Having More Meaningful Conversations
- 19 Things Introverts Would Rather Talk About Than Make Small Talk
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