13 March 2008

The art of making small talk

During lunch break today, a colleague was complaining that he is always misunderstood by others. That is because he is not really what he seems from the outside and hence no one really understands him. That made me wonder - is it really only the other person's fault if he judges one on the basis of what he sees on the surface? I believe that it is equally important that both parties make efforts here. Person 1 should make more effort to show his true self to the world and person 2 should likewise make an effort to scratch below the surface to know person 1 better.

Gone are the days when people used to resort to talking of the weather to break the ice. It is the age of 1-liner emails, short text messaging, instant messaging and slang. British etiquette is out, American staccato bursts of dialogue are in. No one bothers with good old conversation any more. I feel that there is much more scope to understand a person through small talk. For, it is only when you take the time to speak about what is not on the agenda, that you really reveal your true self. When there is a definite agenda, such as a planned meeting or a presentation, you are well-prepared for it and therefore not your natural spontaneous self.

Small talk can be a double-edged sword, however. Shrewd people can sum up a person just by indulging in a bit of chit-chat with him. Its a good weapon to use while interviewing a candidate too. In our IT set up, managers caution their team members from indulging in too much informal chat with the clients. For it is often through such means that valuable company information leaks out. Spies and detectives use it all the time. My brother always claims - nothing bonds two men together as well as a chat over a smoke or a bottle of wine! Perhaps that's why men have stronger friendships than women, but let's not go there as that is a separate topic in itself :-)

One of my favorite books is "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen. In it, the hero is mistaken to be a proud and haughty man by everyone(including the heroine) as he does not take the pains to converse freely with them. How many such misapprehensions can be avoided if everyone cultivates the habit of small talk? Think of how many situations or relationships would have fared differently if the people involved had chosen to communicate more freely?

Of course, just because a person makes small chat does not make him good. That alone cannot make up for other serious lack of attributes. But, the art of making small talk, along with other various skills, can be a powerful weapon to enjoy healthy personal as well as professional relationships.

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