The Benefits of a Little Small Talk

Fewer people engage in idle chitchat anymore, but research suggests that making small talk has surprising benefits

By JENNIFER BREHENY WALLACE

Anyone who passes regularly through busy public spaces knows that one casualty of our obsession with digital devices has been small talk. With our eyes glued to our smartphones, fewer of us engage anymore with people whom we don’t know well. But are we missing something in this loss of idle chitchat?

A growing body of research suggests that small talk has surprising benefits. In a study published in 2014 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers found that daily interactions with casual acquaintances, like chatting with your regular barista at the coffee shop, can contribute to day-to-day well-being.

In a series of studies, participants were asked to track their daily interactions with people connected to them by “strong ties” (family and friends) and “weak ties” (acquaintances). On days when participants had more “weak tie” interactions than usual, they reported a greater sense of belonging and happiness. The researchers hypothesize that, like having a diverse financial portfolio, possessing a “diverse social portfolio might make people less vulnerable to fluctuations in their social network.”

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2014, another group of researchers looked at interactions among strangers. They recruited 118 commuters at a Chicago-area railway station and randomly assigned them one of three roles: to initiate a conversation on the train, to refrain from any conversation and enjoy the solitude or (as a control group) to do whatever they normally do on their commute. In surveys completed afterward, those who were instructed to engage in conversations with strangers reported “significantly more positive” and “no less productive” commutes than those who rode in solitude.

“Talking with a stranger may not offer the same benefits as talking with a close friend, but we underestimate its importance to us,” says the study’s co-author, Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Dr. Epley traded in his own smartphone for a less distracting featureless phone, which has made him, he says, more open to “wonderful, short conversations with strangers.”

Chitchat is also an important social lubricant, helping to build empathy and a sense of community. It is much harder to snap at a taxi driver for going the wrong way if you have just exchanged pleasantries. “Children learn empathy not just by how we treat those closest to us but also by how we acknowledge the strangers around us,” adds psychologist Richard Weissbourd of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They “notice if we appreciate the server in a restaurant and say hello to the mail carrier—or if we treat them like they’re invisible.” Small talk, he notes, “can humanize others across the usual divides.”

In settings like parties or events, Dr. Epley recommends starting with the 10/5 rule taught to many hotel and hospitality employees: When you’re 10 feet away, make eye contact; at 5 feet away, say hello. One surefire strategy is to pay a compliment: “I like your bow tie!” People overestimate the social risks involved in small talk, says Dr. Epley: “Most people not only want to talk to you, they’ll wind up confiding things they may not even tell a spouse.”

A few tips for successful small talk:

Find common ground. To strike up a conversation with a fellow party guest, ask, “How do you know the host?” says Frances Cole Jones, author of “How to Wow.” At a networking event, try, “Have you been going to a lot of these types of events? Are there any that you’ve found really useful?”

Commiserate. Frustrating little moments—being stuck on the train, waiting in a long line, dealing with cranky children at the park—are a good time to initiate a conversation. Humor can help: “Um, how many hours left until bedtime?”

Go deep. Instead of going from topic to topic, find one subject and dig deeper, says Debra Fine, author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk.” Sports, family and travel are often good topics for sustained conversations.

Embrace ignorance. Small talk is an opportunity to learn something new. If the person sitting next you tells you that he works in renewable energy, admit that you have no idea how wind power actually works, says Chris Colin, co-author of “What to Talk About.” “People appreciate candor and will respond in kind.”

Ask interesting questions. “There’s always a path from generic small talk to something more memorable,” says Mr. Colin. If someone says, “It sure is cold,” you can ask, “What’s the coldest you’ve ever been?”

Exit gracefully. Ms. Fine says that instead of ending abruptly with, “Well, nice to meet you,” subtle verbal cues like “Before we take off” or “Since I only have a few minutes left” send a gentler signal that you’d like the small talk to end.

—Ms. Wallace is a freelance writer in New York.