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The science behind small talks and job promotions

One day while grabbing lunch and casually scrolling through social media to fill up the time, our writer, Jason, came across an interesting TikTok video by user @emily.the.recruiter who talked about the importance of small talks and job promotions. According to the video, making small talk is pivotal in landing that job promotion that you’ve always wanted, and may even open you to avenues that you previously didn’t think of.

As someone who was used to making small talks while he was working in the corporate world, Jason had never considered them to be anything more than a leisure activity. To him, it was simply a means of escapism, to unwind at a short break, provide him with a distraction and to feel human again before returning to reality 5 minutes later. Naturally, the topic piqued his interest and he decided to explore the topic.

Small talks - a curse or a blessing?

We get it. Small talks are a chore, they are boring, they don’t get things done, and they are superficial. Sometimes, even pretentious. Some people pepper small talks with a secret message, but not everyone has the time to go decipher and uncover the meaning in between. For people who want nothing more than to complete their jobs and go home, small talks are a menace. For introverts who find it difficult to engage in “aimless” chats, the ordeal might seem exhausting and they would run for the hills as quickly as they can, or breathe a huge sigh of relief the moment the chatter is over.

Yet most people think small talks are a great way to lighten up the mood at work. Whether you’re catching the elevator, taking 5 at the pantry, passing by another colleague en route to the washroom, or congregating 5-10 minutes before the meeting starts, many find that small talks are a precedent to setting the tone. It gives you a glimpse of the agenda of the meeting, the purpose of the conversation, the sender/recipient’s intentions, and if none of that is the focal point, then perhaps people simply want to get to know each other and determine if they can find a friend in others. Because according to a research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, it takes anywhere between 50-200 to make an acquaintance or a friend, and making a friend at work yields numerous benefits ranging from networking to finding a solid support system at work.

It’s hard to say if small talks are indeed dreaded or well-liked, but in most cases, the little chatter that we make every hour and then seems to do us more good than harm.

How small talks affect job promotion

Scientifically speaking, there is no causational effect established between small talks and job promos. There are little to no studies conducted on the paradigm and it stands to reason if the sentiment is purely a belief or a myth. However, some coaching experts believe small talks possess a correlational effect to the equation, and it fundamentally boils down to one thing - Establishing a presence.

Personal development author Mary Hartley believes small talks are a helpful way to put yourself out there. That way people will notice you and engage with you. In her words, “You don’t have to be clever, witty or insightful. You just have to be friendly. What you actually say is less important than the way you engage with other people.” She advised readers to share about themselves during small talks, and encourages finding a common ground with people at work to establish a connection. This fosters a sense of “This person is like me!” and it opens up doors for people to explore (job) opportunities together, to potentially dabble in a collaborative opportunity at work and if conflict is involved, to work towards a constructive and amiable solution instead of one that is filled with rage and animosity.

It’s all about creating a favorable impression, being seen and being well-liked. And the next time a massive opportunity presents itself, people are more likely to recall you because you have left a favorable mark in them. As Hartley writes,

“You might find you are overlooked when it comes to promotion and advancement. It could be that you are just not noticed, that you don’t make an impact, that your name is not known. You might think how on earth is talking about television, or sport, or the weather, or the terrible bus service on your route going to help your career? But this kind of light conversation brings you into contact with people. It makes you visible, and creates a positive impression.”

So while science has not accurately established that small talks will lead to job promotions, it goes to show that the nature of small talks is closely tied to having a positive presence at work. A positive presence = positive reception = positive impression.

So no job promotions then?

Even if small talks don’t necessarily guarantee an immediate promotion, it’s always wise to master the art of small talking, even if you are an introvert or someone who dislikes making superficial banter. Coaching and development firm Kutsko Consulting believes the importance of small talks cannot be overstated and has highlighted its importance in the following benefits:

1. It is a great way to flex your muscle memory

2. It helps you ease into heavy topics

3. It is a skill that will carry you far and beyond

4. It forces you be present

The most interesting point from Kutsko about small talks is “Superficial is good.” As in:

“The brilliance of small talk is superficiality. The very thing that makes some people condemn it as a waste of time or just plain awkward is actually the genius of small talk and the key to doing it expertly. It’s supposed to be superficial… You’re safe from opening up a pandora’s box of people’s deepest darkest confessions and autobiographies. You’re also safe from things turning nasty and putting you in difficult positions - small talk is NOT gossip. It’s not malicious. It’s about the weather and non-threatening, non-political, uncontroversial, safe, everyday topics to which everyone can add a comment. It’s a non-threatening way to make a connection”

What we gather from that is small talks provide a safe ground for people to share about themselves without necessarily divulging too much. You are not there to confide in people, you are there to talk about lighthearted topics in a way that brings you and the recipient closer together. And if you can treat small talks for what it is, it can be a pleasant activity to engage in.

Not everyone thinks the same

Despite the positive sentiments surrounding small talks and its benefits, not everyone seems to agree that small talks are necessary. Harvard Business Review writer and author of Radical Candor Kim Scott believes leaders and coworkers should shy away from the habit of small talking and focus on delivering more constructive feedback instead. “Your employees don’t really want to gab with you about sports or the weather or politics or TV. What they want from their boss is somebody who can help them grow professionally.”

In fact, some people have cautioned against making small talks and potentially slipping a personal detail or two about yourself in the exchanges, believing that they can be used against you at work especially in the context of two parties vying for the same job promotion.

To small talk or not…

It’s clear making small talk adds a much-needed human warmth to the workplace. And the role it plays in determining whether we land a successful job promotion could open up interesting conversations in the field of social and organizational psychology. Most importantly, small talks are here to remind us that everyone can take a breather from work. The next time you feel like an imposter for small talking at work, just remember it’s a skill that will come in handy someday.

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