Small talk

The functions of small talk

Our research shows that small talk is a vital part of workplace interaction, helping to oil the wheels of workplace communication.

Small talk serves discourse functions within workplace communication, such as marking the boundaries of interactions such as meetings, or topics within a meeting, e.g.

Hana, a manager, is briefing her PA, Beth, on jobs to be done

Beth:(and) the election briefing
Hana: yeah oh I think we've cancelled that you might need to check
Beth: yeah
Hana: I'm fairly sure that's been cancelled the panel on Friday afternoon's been cancelled so everyone will just have to cope on their own well it's nice to have you back welcome back
Beth: yes had a very good holiday
Hana: and feel well rested so where did you go

Small talk can be used to ease communication, performing functions such as softening directives, or making it easier for a worker to challenge a more powerful co-worker.

Small talk serves social functions, constructing, maintaining and reinforcing interpersonal relations between those who work together, e.g.

Jon and May pass on the stairs

Jon: hello hello haven't seen you for a while
May: hi
Jon: must have lunch sometime
May: yeah good idea give me a ring

Small talk is used as a time-filler, e.g. in a situation where a worker is waiting for a meeting to begin.

Small talk is essential for the first meeting of the day between two co-workers. Workers who do not exchange greetings at this time can be seen as diffident or rude by others, e.g.

Jock and Pam meet for the first time that day in the corridor

Jock: morning Pam
Pam: hi Jock nice day
Jock: yeah great

The way co-workers use small talk is defined by the power relationship between them. Superiors tend to initiate and delimit small talk, as well as defining what subject matters are acceptable subjects for conversation, e.g.

Tom enters Greg's, his superior, office to request a day's leave

Tom: can I just have a quick word
Greg: yeah sure have a seat
Tom:[sitting down] great weather eh
Greg: mm
Tom: yeah been a good week did you get away skiing at the weekend
Greg: yeah we did, now how can I help you
Tom: I was just wondering if I could take Friday off and make it a long weekend

Defining small talk

What exactly is small talk? Our research shows that most workplace talk in fact falls on a continuum between core business talk and phatic communion (or small talk). Most workplace interactions move rapidly back and forth along this scale within a single interaction.

Core business talk: talk that is relevant to the core business of the organisation, is focused, context-bound, on-task and has a high information content.

Phatic communion: 'atopical' discourse which is not relevant to the core business of the organisation, but is important for its affective (or social) content, e.g.:

Iona and Meg are discussing aspects of a project they are working on:

Meg: that'll be enough for them to be going on with for a start though eh
Iona: mm (with) the stuff that I'll be getting them as well
Max seems quite
[clears throat] really good at getting things together
Meg: there's a couple of articles that I've got photocopied off and I think I took them home cos I wanted them for my varsity so I'll have to dig those out
Iona: mm
Meg: for my varsity notesIona: are you stud- you're studying at the moment
Meg: yeah [clears throat] [tut] I'm in my second year of my um masters
Iona: mm
Meg: and I was using one of the papers was [author's name]'s paper on [topic] yeah
Iona: it's hard
Meg: so it was sort of directly relevant for [laughs] my masters so I took it
Iona: yeah
Meg: but we've got the journal at work anyway so I can photocopy another one and all these um publicat- oh reports in the back
Iona: mm
Meg: I have to make sure that I have to speak to the people that are the project managers


Please see our list of publications on Small Talk in the Bibliographies section.