Is there anything wrong with small talk?

I heard a broadcast announcement from the Samaritans (116 123) as I stood in a London rail station this morning. It encouraged members of the public to notice others who may look troubled. The suggested opening was something like, “Hi – do you know where I can buy coffee?”

Clever, I thought, as in Central London you probably only need to point to indicate a source of coffee. I may say that I have been asked more than once if I’m all right, when I was simply standing still, either looking at something I was considering photographing, or even pausing for thought. It always led to an exchange of smiles.

Mark Murphy, writing at Forbes.com, remarks sternly: “Phatic communication doesn’t extend an invitation to have a real conversation.” He is, of course, commenting in a commercial context, and specifically in virtual settings; however, I disagree. I wonder if by “real conversation” he means that the manager needs to gather information. That can be done both politely and efficiently, in my view, but no manager can guarantee that it will feel like the employee’s idea of “a real conversation”.

I’m with the Samaritans on this. I can remember conversations with strangers that happened years ago, were brief, and did not involve any great self-disclosure, but made all the difference to me. They’re still happening.

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