Improve the world with small talk
With around seven billion people on the planet, plus all the social media, you’d think the last problem we have is loneliness. But you’d be wrong. And loneliness isn’t just a psychological problem. It’s actually bad for your health.
American TV personality and magazine owner Oprah Winfrey started a campaign earlier this year to improve the world one hello at a time. Research shows that loneliness and the feeling of being excluded triggers the same regions in the brain that register physical pain. Feeling more connected to others is good for our health. Studies at the University of California showed that levels of cortisol go down when we are “known by name”, even if it’s just at the local café.
The anti-mobbing and bullying organisation, Friends, have “Hej” (“Hello”) almost as a motto. It’s a small word that makes a big difference. I call it one-word small talk. Many Swedes tell me they don’t like small talk. They think it’s superficial. But almost anybody can manage one word. It sounds almost corny, a real cliché, to say that somebody saying hello to you makes you feel seen. But it’s true. It was one boy in her class saying hello to Sara Damber that broke the spiral of mobbing she had experienced and inspired her to start Friends to help others.
Australian Oliver Gee, now living in Sweden and working as a journalist with the online newspaper “The Local” has started his own private campaign of “Ett hej i taget”, one hello at a time (“Swedish people just don’t understand small talk”). Perhaps part of the resistance to small talk is that it seems like a waste of time to efficient Swedes. As one woman interviewed by Oliver says “Tell me one thing that can be gained from saying hi to the guy checking my train ticket and I’ll start talking immediately.” Perhaps the growing body of research about the health benefits of mini-contacts will help change attitudes to small talk.
Small talk can also just be a fun way to get to know the locals if you are out and about travelling this summer. Years ago I used to take groups of Finns to London for intensive courses for improving their communication in English. In case you don’t know, culturally Finns dislike small talk even more than Swedes. So their task, to help them practice small talk, was to go out and try to find out the answers to a list of questions. Although they were nervous at first, this activity turned out to be one of the favourites of the course.
So I hope you’ll enjoy your summer, practice some small talk and perhaps even improve your health and someone else’s.
P.S. If you’d like to learn how to play ‘small talk tennis’ this summer, you’ll find instructions in my book “Cracking the Code of International Communication”. Happy summer and happy small-talking!
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