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Why do people spend half of every meeting talking about their weekend?

Logic: Because small talk helps you move from transactional to relational

Megan Preston Meyer
Megan Preston Meyer

Logic: Because small talk helps you move from transactional to relational

It’s Monday morning. You roll up to your workstation, coffee in hand, and click ‘Join’ on the first call of the day. While your colleagues materialize in grid form, you check your Outlook: 127 emails and 6 meetings. You have exactly four 30-minute blocks free to squeeze in your entire actual job. The adrenalin starts pumping, you launch into Go Mode, and you’re ready to tackle the workweek.

Then your audio connects.

“Thank you! I got the pattern from a guy in my online knitting group.”

“Well, it’s 11:00pm here now, but the sun was shining earlier.

“…is that like a sourdough starter, or is that more like kimchi?”

They’re all just chatting! You’ll never get through the agenda! This meeting will never end, because it will never start! Your inbox is as jam-packed as your colleague’s canning jars, and you do not have time for this.

So why bother with small talk? Well, first and foremost, it humanizes the enemy.

Okay, that’s a little harsh. We shouldn’t be looking at Marie from Marketing as the enemy. But small talk does help us to view our colleagues as more than just the malicious origin of vaguely worded Jira tickets.

Studies have shown that dehumanization makes people more likely to engage in unethical but beneficial behavior, like buying cheap sweatshop clothes or demanding that the report be redone because the pivot charts are green instead of blue.

Humanization, then, should reduce this behavior. Self-defense experts advise humanizing yourself in the eyes of an attacker: Tell them your name, say you have two cats, build a rapport, and show them your Pinterest board of fermentation recipes.

It’s easy to focus on the transactional element of work. 95% of workplace conversations, whether email, video, or face-to-face, happen because someone needs something from someone. Marie needs updated numbers from you, and you need to follow up with the DBAs because you still don’t have access to the table those numbers come from.

Work is not a series of one-off transactions

But work is not a series of one-off transactions. You see these people every day, and building a relationship with them is valuable. Small talk, even if it’s tiny, is a step toward doing that.

Learning about people’s families and hobbies will help you to see them as whole humans, not just work people - and talking about your own interests outside of the office will help them to see you as more than just a machine.

“But small talk is boring,” you say. “I don’t even like kombucha.”

Then talk about something else. Workplace conversations are bland by default because everyone’s trying to impress everyone else, but you can always salt them up. Ask real questions and pull on threads. Maybe you’ll find out that Ceri runs her virtual knitting group as a service for incarcerated felons. Maybe you’ll find out that hot sauce is also fermented, and swap war stories about the Scoville scale. And maybe you’ll get fewer mean emails from Marketing.

Conclusion: Small talk has benefits. Stop looking at it as a chore, and look at it as a challenge – see how quickly you can move from ‘How was your weekend?’ to something deeper. You won’t click with everyone, but you will with a few… and, at the very least, you’ll all become a little more human.