The Hidden Value of Chitchat for Getting What You Want

New research shows the ability to chitchat can be vital to your success.

Posted Nov 02, 2019

How do you feel about joining in casual chitchat? Are you the type of person who easily engages with almost anyone you encounter in your daily life? Perhaps you’ve gone to great lengths to get up for an early start. You’ve arrived at work, gotten yourself logged in and plugged in, and are eager to tackle that infernally long set of emails cluttering your inbox. Possibly you’ve gone to similar lengths to get to the gym for an early workout, skipping breakfast and getting half an hour less sleep to make sure you get in that important 30-minute treadmill run.

What, then, do you do, when a gabby acquaintance greets you and threatens to occupy those crucial minutes with meaningless jabber? You’ve fought to get your day off to a productive start. How can you get yourself back on track?

Rather than regarding chitchat as a disruptive detour in your day, New York Times columnist Lindsey Mannering suggests that you embrace small talk and use it to your advantage. From her perspective, it’s not just the time element holding people back from getting involved in a seemingly trivial conversation, but the desire to steer clear of any interactions, period. Those who fear chitchat engage in such avoidance strategies as pretending to be in a hurry, not making eye contact, and wearing headphones. As she notes, “if you’ve convinced yourself that avoiding small talk with co-workers is smart self-preservation, that the risk of saying something “dumb” or offensive or coming across as socially inept is not worth the reward of connecting with somebody (yes, even if that connection is a shared concern about it raining), then bad news: Your false logic could be costing you a promotion.”

Scary as that may be, Mannering goes on to point out the many ways that small talk greases the wheels of everyday life and, perhaps randomly, can lead to interactions that actually change your life. If nothing else, small talk builds rapport and it’s that rapport that can enhance the way other people view you. How many times have you been offended when someone you tried to approach for a friendly comparison of weekend plans turns a cold shoulder on you?

According to Mannering, avoiding small talk can even contribute to a lowering of your self-esteem. “Like we’re true failures at life for not being able to connect with a fellow member of the herd.” Her advice is to give yourself positive messages that can bolster your self-confidence in social situations. This includes realizing you’re more likable than you think, engaging in some advance planning about how to handle these situations, moving beyond the “how are you?” loop in which a conversation seemingly goes nowhere, not panicking if things are going badly, and embracing the idea that it’s okay to be silent once in a while (and hide behind those headphones).

These all seem like excellent strategies and indeed, do involve some of the elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy of reframing your thoughts and behaviors in situations that ping your negative self-thoughts.

Another approach to handling awkward situations in which you either want to talk but can’t or just aren’t in the mood (or in a hurry) comes from the surprising source of research on “embodied communication agents” (ECA’s) such as Alexa, Siri, or Cortana. According to a new study by Jasper Feine of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany), “humans interacting with computers exhibit social reactions that are similar to those observed in interpersonal communication. More specifically, humans tend to react subconsciously to social cues of computers, no matter how rudimentary these cues are” (p. 139). No doubt you’ve at some point felt grateful for Siri’s “comforting” words of advice or annoyed at Alexa’s “inability” to understand you. 

These reactions don’t happen by accident, according to Feine et al. ECA’s are programmed to interact with you through the same channels that operate in human to human communication. By understanding the nature of the cues ECA's use to engage you in their chatter, you can gain some valuable insights into how to hone your own casual conversations.

To understand the ways that people give meaning to the social cues of computers, the German authors conducted a systematic review of the literature on ECA’s to develop a taxonomy, or reliable way of sorting out the main categories of social cues. The four categories the research team identified from the literature with their human-to-human equivalents are as follows:

Verbal: Cues expressed with written words that include content (literal meaning) and style (how the words are stated).

Visual: Cues expressed through bodily movements, use of space, and appearance (which for an ECA refers to its graphical representation).

Auditory: Voice quality and vocalizations (utterances or noises).

Invisible: Timing of speech (pauses, delays) and any tactile sensations through touch.

Applying this taxonomy to specific cases, the authors chose Amazon’s Alexa as one of its three most interesting ECA's to analyze. All the visual cues had to be scrapped because Alexa (at least at present) doesn’t have an “appearance,” and the touch cues had to go for similar reasons. However, Alexa does have relevance to the cues involved in small talk because she can engage in some convincing human-like banter such as jokes, greetings, and farewells. Here is where you can take a page from the ECA programmers to figure out how to keep the small talk flowing when you’re not sure what to say.

Using the examples provided by the German researchers, a small-talk conversation might begin with the obvious questions: “How are you today?” or “What about the weather?” These questions might advance into more personal territory by continuing with an Alexa question such as: “Did you enjoy the recipe that I told you last Tuesday?” You can express agreement: “I agree, this painting is beautiful.” And you can complement the other person just the way Alexa can: “You did a great job." In terms of self-disclosure, one of the ECA examples might not seem like the best choice with another human (Alexa might say: “People lie. I tell lies if I have to”) but you could reveal something safer about yourself. You can thank people just as she does, and offer advice to make them feel better.

Based on ECAs that have an actual appearance, you can draw from your own playbook of prosocial facial expressions, stand closer to or farther away from the other person, make eye contact, raise or lower your eyebrows, nod your head, and of course, smile.

Picking apart the nature of computer-generated language and visual representations, you can see that you have a wide range of options for bridging the gap between silence and a pleasant set of exchanges when worried you'll say the wrong thing. If you’re in a hurry or don't want to offend a potentially pleasant conversation partner, you can also use these cues to signify (without being rude) that you can’t stop and talk at the moment. Here's where some self-disclosure would work, as you explain that you're feeling pressured to get going and will enjoy chatting later.

To sum up, although computers are programmed to imitate human communication, the evolution of their interactive technology now provides a new way to think about how you ease your own social wheels. As Mannering points out, there’s everything to be gained and very little to be lost by perfecting this fine art.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock


Feine, J., Gnewuch, U., Morana, S., & Maedche, A. (2019). A taxonomy of social cues for conversational agents. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 132, 138–161. doi:10.1016/j.ijhcs.2019.07.009