Practicing small talk: an exercise in civility and connection-building – Karen Spierling, History and Global Commerce

My concern

As the 2020 election approaches, I have found myself thinking a lot about how to help our students navigate our incredibly politically polarized society.  Listening carefully to each other and understanding other people’s points of view is certainly an important goal of the work we do in our classrooms and across campus.  But there are also many situations in life when it’s just as important to be able to talk with other people and connect with them despite and across political differences.  In the global commerce major, we frequently talk about developing the skills of thinking on one’s feet, listening to one another, and networking. I was concerned that in 2020, our students did not have enough public models or personal experience with how to use conversation to build connections with other people even across political divides.

My process

About two weeks ago, I started each of my classes (two senior capstones and one sophomore course) with an exercise I call Practicing small talk: an exercise in civility and connection-building.  The students paired up and chatted for 5 minutes (preferably with someone they didn’t already know well), and I asked them to come up with two things they had in common and two differences between them. The restrictions were that the similarities and differences could not be about politics, life at Denison, or physical appearance (nothing they could know about each other at first sight–e.g., they’re both wearing sweatshirts).  Most of my students did this at a social distance in the classroom, with my few remote students doing this in a Zoom breakout room.

After five minutes of lively discussion – I loved hearing the classroom full of voices – we returned as a group to discuss what we had learned.  First, I asked the pairs to report back on what they had learned about each other, which was a great way for the whole class to learn more about one another.  Then we talked about how they had gotten to those similarities and differences – what kinds of questions had they asked?  And next we discussed some of the ways that this skill of small talk can be useful in different kinds of situations.  Finally, I asked them specifically about how they could employ small talk in a conversation with a partner with opposite political views to their own.  While their first instincts were to want to dig into politics and understand the other person, we talked about the fact that in certain situations, debating politics is not productive – instead, it’s important to be able to engage in more neutral small talk to find connections and move the relationship forward.

What kinds of questions did you ask to get the conversation started?

As we deconstructed their short conversations, students quickly realized that talking about common interest was a safe space.  Some of the questions they asked each other included:

        • Do you have a pet?
        • Do you have any siblings?
        • Do you like any sports?
        • What’s your favorite food?
        • Where did you grow up?
        • Where have you traveled?
        • What’s your favorite season?

While these questions might seem silly and even a waste of time in such a moment of national  political crisis, the exercise helped students see how quickly this kind of “small talk” can lead to an engaging conversation where each participant feels they have gotten to know the other person a bit, even in just a few minutes.

What could you build into a further conversation?

After talking about their actual conversations, I then asked the students how this process – thinking intentionally about how to implement small talk – could be useful to them in the future, in both personal and professional situations. They realized that by developing simple common interests, you then have a conversation starter the next time you meet someone – how’s your grandpa? Is your dog still chewing on the furniture? We also talked about how small talk can be crucial in saving a situation – rather than getting mired in a political fight with someone, they can change the subject and bring the conversation back to a more civil place that focuses on connection instead of division.

My reflection

When I said that we were going to do an exercise to practice small talk, my students looked at me as if I were crazy.  But it turned out to be a highly effective exercise that several of them have mentioned to me since then.  There are, of course, many situations in which really listening to the full expression of another person’s view and experience of politics or other thorny topics  is crucial to building a deeper relationship or finding an effective solution to a problem.  But in order to navigate a diverse and complex democratic society, to build professional connections, and sometimes just to survive Thanksgiving dinner, it can be just as important to have the skills to gracefully change the subject and find some small piece of common ground. 

Karen Spierling

Director of Global Commerce