Not all of us enjoy discussing the weather and the state of the roads. What’s the point in asking how someone is for the hundredth time, knowing the answer will always be some noncommittal variation along the lines of ‘yeah, good’, ‘not too bad’, or ‘you know how it is’? Why do we comment on the weather when we all know already, having had to brave the outdoors in order to get here in the first place?
For many years, I found small-talk incredibly frustrating and time-consuming. It felt like a long, dishonest script we have to run through every time we meet a stranger or an acquaintance. I have always preferred deep and honest friendships over surface-level acquaintances and small talk was, in my mind, a buffer to prevent people from ever truly knowing each other. As an introvert, I have had to learn to begin and carry conversations, and starting them purely to talk about inconsequential nothings seemed a waste of energy and nerves.
Small-talk is not pointless however, and, for the most part, it is not a waste of time. Though I tend to think of it as one of those stiff British peculiarities, it serves as more than a silence-breaking etiquette. We have to remember that.
A polite but general question is an invitation to conversation. It can be a comment on the lateness of the train to a fellow passenger, it can be a recommendation to the person staring at the same shelf as you in the supermarket. It can be a ‘hello, my name is –, I don’t believe we’ve met’ at a church or social gathering. We can find ourselves at either end of the invitation but as Christians, we should be particularly adept at being on the inviting end.
Take the weather for instance. If you’ve met a stranger or someone you don’t know very well, it means you both left your house this morning, and since the weather affects anyone who ventures outdoors, we have something in common. By asking a question about it or making a comment (usually complaining if you are British), you are inviting them to respond. You are also communicating that you are amicable, open, and approachable and you’d be surprised how few people these days know someone with those traits.
In a setting like church, small talk is particularly important (in its place). I visited a church once and after the service, waited a few minutes to see if anyone would say hello. I always do this because I love meeting new people, especially believers. When no one did, I reverted to making the effort and turned to the lady beside me and struck up a conversation. Eventually to my surprise, she asked how long had I been coming to the church and was equally surprised to discover that I was also a visitor. No one else spoke to us apart from the minister who shook our hands at the door on the way out.
It is important for churches to be welcoming and hospitable. Small talk is a useful tool. A simple ‘Hi, I’m –, I don’t think we’ve met before, are you visiting?’ is friendly and warm but less intimidating (especially for unbelievers) than grilling them about the sermon. You may laugh, but it’s an experience I’ve had as a visitor before. Talking about the message and elaborating on the gospel will come, but for now small talk is an invitation to engage on safe ground.
Talking about the roads and the weather, though it may be unappealing to us, is not about us. Much of the time, it is about putting the other person at ease. You can’t normally have a soul-deep conversation with someone you met a bare ten minutes ago.
If someone takes up your non-threatening invitation to talk, engaging in conversation about surface-level things like work and travel is not wasting time on trivialities. In church in particular, conversation around these subjects helps put visitors at ease and shows them that we are not only human, but we are interested in them as human beings, not as a number on a tick-sheet of prospective converts.
Yes, we care about their souls and we want them to be saved. We do not shy away from challenging them on that front and pleading with them to repent and believe but we also care about them as a whole. We can better understand their situation and where they are in life if we take the time to get to know them. Engaging in small talk is a kindness to others, a less daunting way to show that we want to know them. It is a form of hospitality, showing them that we’re not scary and intimidating, but rather want them feel welcome.
Someone who is more at ease in your company and recognises that you have a genuine interest in them as a person is more likely to want to spend time together and move from chatting about sports results to discussing deeper, more important issues.
There you have it, small talk is more valuable than you think because it not only creates an invitation to converse on safe and neutral ground but it puts others at ease when they are in unfamiliar situations with unfamiliar people. Take it from someone who bemoaned it as a chore for years, small talk can even become an enjoyable way to get to know others better and discover the things you have in common.
If you are annoyed and frustrated, remember that this is part of your service to others, inviting them in and making them feel at home. Enjoy it!
Knowing that someone is interested in you and in your life also means you will be more inclined to talk to them about deeper things. One day, the ‘yeah, we’re not too bad’ becomes ‘actually, I’m really struggling at the moment and I don’t know what to do’.
Small talk puts people at ease but it’s also a way to maintain a relationship with someone until one of you pushes the bounds and you let one another in. In a world of social media masks and screen-deep friendships, opening up is no small thing.
Of course, there will always be those who stoutly refuse to move beyond the script and purposefully keep you at arm’s length. There’s only so far you can go with acquaintances like that, but many people feel neither heard nor listened to and once they recognise that you are genuine on safe ground, they’re more likely to give you a chance at deeper friendship.
You must understand, small talk can seem tedious, time-wasting, and frustrating, but it is valuable and you should learn to enjoy it when it is kept in its place. Smiling and discussing whether it may or may not snow this year is surely worth it if it puts people at ease and opens them up to gospel conversations and deeper friendships. It’s not always the appropriate approach (think door-to-door work and street evangelism) but it has its place and we shouldn’t forget that.
It’s not a script to rush through, repeat X number of times and people will magically open up to you, it’s a cultural quirk that we can engage in to bring the gospel to others and glory to God.
I’m so glad the evenings are getting lighter, don’t you think?
Place: the cafe in the bookshop
Listening to: The Beginning by Factor Eight