Small talk

Friday 28 July 2023

One thing I wish I had mentioned in my PyCon 2023 keynote: small talk. Engineers often find small talk difficult. I know I’ve had trouble with it. It can feel like “talking about nothing.” But small talk helps build connections between people.

If you haven’t seen the keynote (you should watch it!), a central idea there is that our words carry both information and sentiment, that sentiment is important for being heard, and that missing sentiment is defaulted from history and similarity.

That model gives us a way to see the value in small talk, even if it’s about nothing: simple chatting about simple things can be positive interactions that build a history. Talking about non-work topics can uncover surprising connections, adding to a feeling of similarity. These both create a reserve of good sentiment to draw on in future interactions.

Talking with another engineer recently, they said, “small talk feels unnatural to me.” I think what they meant was that they weren’t intrinsically interested in the discussion. A good definition I heard once is that a nerd is someone who is unfashionably focused. Small talk won’t fall into their narrow focus, so it feels useless or boring.

In the keynote I make the point that engineers are good at learning new skills, and people skills are no exception. You can bring engineering approaches to getting better at people skills. Small talk can be difficult even with this in mind though: you can’t see the reservoir of good will you are building with someone.

As my engineer friend put it in classically nerdy terms:

It’s not clear if  conversations[-1].outcome == Outcome.GOOD

I get it, I’m not sure I’m that good at small talk myself. I don’t have pets, I’m not a foodie, I don’t drink beer, I don’t play video games, I don’t know anything about Magic The Gathering or anime, and so on. It can be hard to find something insubstantial but shared to talk about. And “insubstantial” doesn’t sound good in the first place.

Connecting with people is worth it, small talk is a good way to connect with people, and everyone can learn to be better at it. Did I mention I gave a keynote about interacting with people?


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