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Alissa Fleck Headshot

Small Talk Is Dead and That's Going to Cost Us

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It's over, gone, and our children are going to suffer for it.

In 2012, Sherry Turkle explained in the New York Times how we have now "sacrificed conversation for mere connection," through the use of email, text messages and social media. Turkle's judgment, while accurate, is not groundbreaking. In "The Flight From Conversation" she tells us what we've long, distressingly known: conversation is becoming outdated.

"We've become accustomed to a new way of being 'alone together,'" Turkle writes. She says what we've arrived at is a collective existence that revolves around "connecting in sips," thereby expediting the process of having "trivial" interactions with others.

Turkle continues:

...connecting in sips doesn't work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we tend to one another. (The word itself is kinetic; it's derived from words that mean to move, together.) We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another's point of view.

In some ways, the situation is far worse than that which Turkle proposes about the sacrifice of meaningful conversation; she merely scratches the surface, perhaps because we've already come a long way in two years toward eliminating any need for interaction. We're not just sacrificing crucial conversation for blips of connection; we're losing supposedly meaningless small talk, and that will also cost us dearly.

We may be inclined to think, naively, our society as a whole is increasing its efficiency by eliminating the instances that bring about small talk, but this part of daily existence is more important than we could imagine. We don't just need to relearn to be with others, we need to learn to accept the importance of absolutely baseless communication.

Small talk happens everywhere we're hellbent on eliminating it. Most people don't much care for it, but it's part of what makes us human and fit into the grand context of humanity. Going grocery shopping, going to the library, bank, post office or the movies. These public experiences, replete with humdrum conversation, are all being phased out in the name of convenience and efficiency.

Erving Goffman, one of the most influential American sociologists of the 20th century, has also been one of most influential voices in the study of face-to-face interaction. Goffman sees face-to-face interaction as an essential, ritualized game rather than an extension of human nature, with all sorts of critical cues and routines.

In Goffman's analysis, even conversations in passing on the street are immensely complex and layered with social components, which people can build upon to further their wellbeing in the social context and learn from themselves and one another.

Where are relationships born anyway, but from the very awkward bowels of Goffman's loaded "face-to-face interaction"?

The more contemporary Viveka Adelswärd, linguist and Professor Emeritus in Communication at Linköping University, studies the ways people understand and misunderstand each other in every day conversation.

"Small talk provides us with lots of information and confirms our social group affiliation," notes the professor.

She explains:

Conversation patterns are difficult to learn on a theoretic level. People have to participate in conversations to be able to understand how, for example, the mechanics of taking turns during a conversation operate, keeping the conversation going, noticing transitions from subject to subject, or when someone wants to conclude a conversation.

"On an individual level small talk also fulfills another function," she says. "We formulate our thoughts and ideas while we are talking." This is the very crux of focus groups.

The University of Washington's "The Daily" explains how heavily children rely on verbal interaction to learn, and for all young children, talk is inherently "small." Only does this smallest of talk ever give way to something greater.

An intensive study reveals children require live, back-and-forth interaction with adults in order to effectively learn communication. The conversation need not be meaningful, but it does need to be reciprocal and "contingent on what the child [has] said."

As we're on the brink of losing more and more live interaction, it's important we remember the warnings of Turkle and Adelswärd and even the research of Goffman, that people do in fact thrive on the experience of prattling and its loss would be a true detriment to the evolution of our society.

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