Ever walk into a networking event or cocktail party and all you hear is superficial chit-chat? The small talk is deafening and doesn’t evolve into anything substantial. You can hardly stand not to elicit an eye-roll in between sips of your Mojito.
Questions like what do you do? and where do you live? are predictable and exhausting; commentary about the weather or last night’s game fill up awkward moments as people size each other up to determine — is this is someone I want to talk to?
As it turns out, the types of conversations you’re engaging in truly matter for your personal wellbeing. In 2010, scientists from the University of Arizona and Washington University in St. Louis investigated whether happy and unhappy people differ in the types of conversations they have.
Seventy-nine participants wore a recording device over four days and were periodically recorded as they went about their lives. Out of more than 20,000 recordings, researchers identified the conversations as trivial small talk or substantive discussions.
As published in Psychological Science, the happiest participants had twice as many genuine conversations and one third as much small talk as the unhappiest participants.
These findings suggest that the happy life is social and conversationally deep rather than isolated and superficial. The research has also confirmed what most people know but don’t practice: surface level small talk does not build relationships
The new trend: Ban the small talk
Obviously inspired, behavioral scientists Kristen Berman and Dan Ariely, co-founders of Irrational Labs, a non-profit behavioral consulting company, raised the bar by hosting a dinner party where small talk was literally banned and only meaningful conversations were allowed.
As documented in a Wired article, invited guests of Berman and Ariely were provided with index cards featuring examples of meaningful (and odd) conversation starters like, for example, the theory of suicide prevention or, um … “the art of the dominatrix.”
The party was a hit. The authors report that “everyone was happier” without the obligation of trivial small talk.
Seizing the opportunity as any innovative entrepreneur would, Carolina Gawroński, founder of No Small Talk dinners, launched her business last month in Hong Kong, which is quickly spreading to cities around the world.
“Growing up I was surrounded by, on the one side, [my father’s] interesting friends. But on the other side, there was this whole element of being social and being at bullshit social events,” Gawroński tellsHong Kong Free Press. “Since a young age, I’ve always questioned it: ‘Why do people talk like this? What’s the point?’”
The rules at a No Small Talk dinner event are simple: no phones and no small talk. Guests also receive cards with meaningful-conversation prompts.
Then, there’s Sean Bisceglia, a partner at Sterling Partners, a private equity firm. Bisceglia has hosted Jefferson-style dinners at his home for the past eight years.
The concept is basically the same but shared as a group in a whole-table conversation with a purpose: One person speaks at a time to the whole table, there are no side conversations, and small talk is completely banned.
“I do it because the shallowness of cocktail chitchat kind of drove me crazy,” Bisceglia tells Crain’s Chicago Business. “There was never any conversation deeper than two minutes. I really felt that if we could bring together a group of people, you could get into the issues and hear different people’s perspectives.”
13 questions to start great conversations
If you’ve bought on to this idea of banning small talk from your conversations, here are thirteen no-fail conversation starters cherry-picked from a few credible sources:
- What’s your story?
- What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever stolen?
- What is your present state of mind?
- What absolutely excites you right now?
- What book has influenced you the most?
- If you could do anything you wanted tonight (anywhere, for any amount of money), what would you do and why?
- If you had the opportunity to meet one person you haven’t met who would it be, why and what would you talk about?
- What’s the most important thing I should know about you?
- What do you value more, intelligence or common sense?
- What movie is your favorite guilty pleasure, and why?
- You are stuck on a deserted island, and you can only take three things. What would they be?
- When and where were you happiest in your life?
- What do you think is the driving force in your life?