Small talk versus big tech

21st October 2021

None of us has the same expectations of ‘social technology’ that we had 18 months ago. And as in-person interactions become easier and safe again, chances are those expectations will change some more.

We wondered what each of our personal and professional balances of in-person versus digital encounters would be, and why? Would we lean more towards ‘small talk’, or more enthusiastically towards big tech? What best helps us to be effective, connected, empathic? How do we best build friendships, defend ourselves against isolation or anxiety, find our tribe?

Here’s what the team has to say…

Andy, 58 years old

In every social gathering, some people are pulled towards the centre of things, as if attached to an invisible bungee cord. There are others – like me – whose bungee is tethered to the periphery. In the absence of any other impulse, you’ll find me in a quiet corner. I say this for you to know that I am no social butterfly, and that I can be anxious among crowds. But the paradox, maybe, is that I love conversation. And I’ve learned that all talk starts small. 

Small talk with a stranger, in-person, can be spontaneous and natural if I can hold gentle eye contact. The look says: I see you. If that person wants to be seen, then conversation just happens. Those moments are (almost always) lovely little gifts that lift my mood, I think by easing me out of self-absorption and boosting my sense of connection to the people around me.

So am I arguing for small talk or Big Tech? In-person, or digital? I’m advocating for both actually.

Digital can be very ‘connecting’ too – it’s just a different kind of intimacy. Let’s take Zoom as an example. The cues I might lose from not being there in the flesh are balanced out by new kinds. I get to see people’s home offices, lounges, balcony views, pets, family and holiday destinations. If I were Emperor of Digital, I would ban people from using ‘corporate’ backdrops or artistic blurred effects in video calls. Those glimpses we get of each other and our broader, human existences, are the elements of great small talk and lead to bigger conversations. And of course I take opportunities to expand those experiences with in-person encounters too, when the zeitgeists of people, productivity and planet overlap.

For me, digital has also made the creation of visual and written content a shared, intimate experience. Having someone ‘with you’ as you create; letting them re-shape the work, smooth it, improve it, as you watch; doing the same in return. Not just intimate but comforting, inspiring, empowering, and efficient. I don’t know an in-person experience that matches it. Lots of people still co-create content by emailing a static file to a handful of collaborators and sit waiting for responses. Please try the other thing: it’s easy, intriguing and mostly for free, wherever you get your productivity, collaboration and creativity apps. 

As far as I can tell, we only have good choices to make here. We should choose to try new digital experiences, and blend the ones that work with the best of the other kind. I think digital tech is still really just scratching the surface of what’s achievable for nurturing relationships with each other (and other kinds of intelligence) through digital means. 

Niya, 21 years old 

We all have the choice. The choice to stay on our phone in the queue to Pret or ask the lady behind for her favorite coffee and try something new today. The choice to listen to music on the tube rather than talk to the stranger beside us – who happens to have no phone, is fifty-six years old and definitely has something to say about “my generation”. These small talk interactions could be very fruitful and exciting or they could annoy us for the rest of the day.

With the big technology in our small hands, it is easier than ever to stay in our own bubble, connect with the people we love online and disconnect from any unnecessary experiences around us. But I often ask myself:

Does that make us less communicative, more prone to annoyance from the outer world simply because they have interfered with our bubble? How come we have started hating meeting people face to face and the solution to everything is a simple Zoom call?

Humans are social creatures and can the digital world provide us with enough of that? What about the small conversations that help us start a friendship – like our dislikes for certain coffees at the coffee shop or the sometimes unsolicited but helpful advice we might get from strangers? 

I am a people person. I like to meet with them, I like to have chats on random topics and I do not mind telling people my stories and listening to theirs (of course, considering I am in the right mood – we all have our moments!). With technology making the world so flexible, so easy to access I have noticed I am less and less exposed to the outer world. It seems so easy picking up tasks knowing I do not have to travel to meet a client, I do not have to walk forty minutes to my lecture… and I end up in my room all day, jumping from one Zoom call onto another. And they are proper work calls – there is no time for small talk to get a feeling of the person across as they are also in a rush to get to another meeting. 

Technology has made it easy to work. To live. To learn. But it has also made it hard to go out and enjoy a train journey with no music and no phone. It has made it hard to go offline and not worry about the amount of notifications you get. And it has definitely made it easier to get annoyed at people, who for one reason or another, wish to chat, wish to engage in small talk and hence let the time pass quickly. 

But will technology be the end of all human interaction? No. 

Will it make it harder to reach out to a human physically next to us, unprejudiced, “unannoyed”? Yes. 

Sharon, 54 years old

I’m tentatively moving back towards in person interactions again. Yesterday at an exercise class (in-person, so much better than on Zoom) someone mentioned being at a restaurant where a fellow diner coughed throughout the meal. The restaurant fell silent. Everyone was mortified. And we all nodded along as she described it, imagining the horror of it. I think we’re all a long way off feeling safe, and I don’t believe that’s going to change any time soon.

So Big Tech interactions are here to stay. I’ve grown used to Zoom. I love the ease of it. The lack of travel to meetings. The time saving. The ability to gather people together wherever they are in the world and collaborate. There are some Small Talk things I’ve happily let go – like organised networking – so glad I never have to do that again. But some I’m looking forward  to embracing again. Serendipitous meetings, body language, being relaxed in the company of people. That’s the memorable life stuff, and I am there for it. 

Liz, 26 years old

There is nothing I dislike more in this world than unsolicited small talk – don’t get me wrong, I love talking, but there are certain situations where I just don’t want to be disturbed. I love my own company, so when I take my phone out in a public place, it’s because I am enjoying my own company, and I am probably using my phone to interact with the people I love. 

My fiancé and I have spent the last three years of our lives relying heavily on technology to stay connected. We met, and fell in love online. We didn’t meet each other in person for several months, but I never felt disconnected from him, socially deprived or distant, in fact, we felt stronger than ever.

I was maintaining daily social interactions that led to one of the best friendships and relationships I could imagine.

I think – objectively speaking – that technology gets a bad reputation. There are a lot of old fashioned values held on how you MUST meet face to face all the time, but there needs to be an understanding that things just don’t work that way anymore, and if you try to push yourself (or anyone else) in that direction, you’re probably going to fall behind. The pandemic has only exacerbated this. So many of us now suffer from COVID anxiety, myself included, but now that the technologies I have used for years are mainstream (Zoom, Discord, etc.), there is no longer a need to have every meeting or relationship be in front of your face.

Technology doesn’t prevent growth in your work and personal relationships, your inability to change does…

Charlie, 43 years old

A big part of my job used to be getting a client together with a journalist. Of course there’d be a purpose, usually an announcement or a product launch, or some hi-tech expertise would be the hook for it to happen in the first place. 

But from my perspective, the relationship would gel during the stuff that happens on the periphery – the arrival, introductions, the awkwardness of choosing where to sit, ordering from a menu, observations of a location, the comparing of smartphones, body language, packing up to leave, and “where are you headed next?”

The small talk – random snippets of a moment in life shared, our commonalities, our uniqueness, are insights into a person and their character. This is how I remember people and events.

How do we create opportunities for small talk if everyone is in the ‘waiting room’? How do we build relationships if there’s no time to learn about what makes you you? What stories of the weird and wonderful people you meet or the places you went? 

Without doubt there’s a time and a place for tech (I quietly waged a war in the early 2000s for more remote working – imagine if my younger self knew!). Technology enables me, a mum now of three young children, to return to work. It allows busy journalists to squeeze deadlines and have time to actually write stuff. 

Convenient, flexible, efficient, an effective use of everyone’s time. But also, I think, more impersonal. And for me, finding out the personal, the quirks, is what relationships are made of. Post Covid, how do we find the balance?

Haneen, 22 years old

Introvert or Extrovert? Personally, I’m not sure. Before this covid madness, I simply did not know how to be quiet. I loved speaking to anyone and everyone, however I barely ever contributed to any online group chat. But in the outside world,  I had to speak to at least one person in every aisle in Asda. I felt the urge to recommend my favourite pasta, or ask the lady next to me how the drink she picked up tastes like. 

And then I got locked up! Locked up with four brothers who were just as loud and social as I am (Our family group chat is called ‘Monkeys’ – so you can imagine). Our quiet movie nights were filled with shouting at the screen begging the character to turn the other away. But slowly, our movie nights got quieter, and the neighbours were having better sleep. After many trials of my mother trying to calm us over the years, she came to a realisation that all she had to do all these years was cook up a global pandemic. Easy. 

When we emerged from our caves, we were welcomed with social distance and everyone who once looked familiar was now masked up. And today, I travel to work with my bag on the seat next to me, with half of my consciousness dived into a book and the other half praying no one comes to sit next to me. And I hate the new me. 

And so when I’m in Asda now… as I wait for my turn with the cashier I try to think of anything to say. And if I succeed in a conversation, I get that warmth of nostalgia!

Hector, 52 years old

I was in the queue for my covid booster jab last week when I overheard the couple behind me saying they hadn’t been vaccinated before and this was their first jab. I silently reasoned that they must be “nutty” anti-vaxxers who only succumbed because they want to go abroad.

After the jab, everyone had to sit in a tent outside the pharmacy for fifteen minutes in case we had an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Everyone was scrolling their phones apart from this “evil” couple chatting beside me. Partly because we had been discussing the merits of small, and partly because they were both wearing a shoe brand I was curious about, I started a conversation.

Turns out they weren’t nutty or evil. They hadn’t had the vaccine the first time around because the whole family had caught covid just before their vaccine was scheduled. Turns out they were lovely people, I learnt how the shoes were good for your feet, and we had a fun natter until it was time to go.

I’m not for or against big tech. Big tech isn’t evil or good, it’s a neutral tool we humans use for our own purposes. I also believe that the human condition doesn’t change, that’s why Shakespeare still resonates, and we will all be watching the new West Side Story film this Christmas.

I am, however, all for people being happy. All the data says small talk and lots of casual face to face interactions makes all of us happier. Due to the data, I think there is a silent harm happening to everyone scrolling their phones and missing those interactions. 

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