The British may be mocked for their weather-related small talk but exchanging idle pleasantries can leave a lasting impression and affect future social interactions, research suggests.
The study found just four minutes of chit-chat can give away aspects of our personality, such as whether we are extroverted or introverted, and influence subsequent social interactions.
“It might seem like a drain on time and productivity but our research suggests small talk is an important way to learn about the personality of others, which in turn helps us to better predict how they will behave in the future,” said Prof Daniel Sgroi from the University of Warwick, the co-author of the study published in the journal PLoS ONE (pdf).
The researchers recruited 338 participants and divided them into two groups before they met in person, with each participant asked to complete a personality and IQ test. Within each group, participants were paired up and either engaged in a four-minute conversation by text or had no contact with their partner.
The participants then had to guess aspects of their partner’s personality, such as how extroverted they were, and predict whether they would act cooperatively or selfishly in two money-based strategic games.
The team found those who chatted scored more highly on predicting their partner’s IQ and answers to the personality test, although they were also more likely to project their own personality traits on to their partner.
“In even a few minutes we will start to form a mental model of the person we are talking with: are they extroverted or introverted, do they seem upbeat or downbeat, cooperative or uncooperative? These sorts of impressions won’t be perfect, but they will be useful,” said Sgroi.
Next, the participants met and played with their conversation partner – or with a stranger if they were in the no-contact group – which allowed the scientists to assess the impact of prior small talk on their tactics.
The researchers gave each participant £20 and asked them to contribute to a communal pot shared with their partner, a cognitive experiment called the public goods game.
The team say those who had chatted to their partners were more likely to correctly predict their contribution to the pot. What’s more those who had chatted beforehand contributed 30% more than those who had not – a finding the researchers suggest was also down to the relationship they had established through small talk.
“Those who engaged in small talk with their partner had a better understanding of their partner’s personality – they scored much better at predicting their character traits and in turn this helped them to predict how they would behave,” said Sgroi. “The bottom line is that they performed better and earned more money than those who didn’t have the opportunity to chat.”
Georgie Nightingall, the founder of Trigger Conversations, said small talk is a great way to facilitate collaboration in the workplace: “It’s funny how we spend our lives at work yet hardly know the people we work with. If we’re not talking, we’re missing out on the opportunity to enjoy our work lives.
“People find small talk hard because it can feel like it’s never going to end. Once you have all the information you need it can feel awkward and pointless. But if you see it as a gateway and ask follow-up questions it can help you relate to people. If you’re going to bring up the weather, think of ways to expand beyond that. The weather is a great opener to every moment of our lives where it is relevant,” said Nightingall. “People are more willing to share if you show you care. My advice is: be genuinely curious.”