Kitchen Table Kibitzing Friday: the problem of making small talk

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It was a tough day for democracy and the rule of law, so here’s something different on Cliches and Collective Nouns in the context of small talk.


The problem is that most discourse does devolve to what might seem small talk, made worse by social media and iconic short hand like emojis. I’d like to be clever in such situations but people get easily offended because of the probability of micro-aggression. Dinner parties are better since usually everyone is generally more comfortable together, but some of us are generally too shy to even feign gregariousness in larger-scale get-togethers.  Balancing the unimportance of topics while managing interaction is important, especially with managing issues of intimacy or first impressions. The worst versions are those who use conversation to make monetary profit or at least develop social capital, beginning with one-to-one, dyadic conversation. As in this linked example, mediated by a cup of coffee.

Small talk is an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed.[1] In a nutshell, it is a polite conversation about unimportant things.[2]


The phenomenon of small talk was initially studied in 1923[3] by Bronisław Malinowski in his essay “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages”,[4] who coined the term “phatic communication” to describe it.[5] The ability to conduct small talk is a social skill; hence, small talk is some type of social communication.

In spite of seeming to have little useful purpose, small talk is a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing interpersonal distance.[6] It serves many functions in helping to define the relationships between friends, colleagues, and new acquaintances. In particular, it helps new acquaintances to explore and categorize each other's social position.[7]

Small talk is closely related to the need for people to maintain a positive face and feel approved of by those who are listening to them. It lubricates social interactions in a very flexible way, but the desired function is often dependent on the point in the conversation at which the small talk occurs:[8]

  1. Conversation opener: when the speakers do not know each other, it allows them to show that they have friendly intentions and desire some sort of positive interaction. In a business meeting, it enables people to establish each other's reputation and level of expertise. If there is already a relationship between the two talkers, their small talk serves as a gentle introduction before engaging in more functional topics of conversation. It allows them to signal their own mood and to sense the mood of the other person.
  2. At the end of a conversation: suddenly ending an exchange may risk appearing to reject the other person. Small talk can be used to mitigate that rejection, affirm the relationship between the two people, and soften the parting.
  3. Space filler to avoid silence: in many cultures, silences between two people are usually considered uncomfortable and/or awkward. Tension can be reduced by starting phatic talk until a more substantial subject arises. Generally, humans find prolonged silence uncomfortable, and sometimes unbearable. That can be due to human evolutionary history as a social species, as in many other social animals, silence is a communicative sign of potential danger.[9]



And yet we’re judged by our use and misuse of cliches, even as small talk strategy we have to use them to fill space or to initiate or close conversations.

Following is a partial list, and the entire list of all 50 phrases is available in our online gallery or as a TechRepublic download.


Phrases to avoid:

  • It's a win-win situation – If you say this, no one has won anything.
  • Think outside the box – This uncreative saying means you're already stuck inside said box.
  • Grab the low-hanging fruit – This one is a no.
  • In today's world – It means now. Say now.
  • Push the envelope – There is no special envelope to push. I swear.
  • Drink the Kool-Aid – This was a tragedy. More than 900 people died when cult leader Jim Jones convinced them to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. Quit talking about it as if it's a good thing.
  • Value-added – What, are we grocery shopping? This one is tiring to hear.
  • Let's take this offline – This was creative once upon a time. It's not anymore.
  • Take it to the next level – Am I the only one picturing Super Mario Bros?
  • Actionable – It's great to figure out what's important in a meeting. But can't we just say that? Or are we looking for exponential returns? See? Buzzwords lead to more buzzwords.
  • I don't have the bandwidth – This one is overused. I'm guilty of overusing it. We all are. Let's give it a rest.
  • Put a pin in it – Stop using it. Please. Instead, say that you'll do it later.
  • Step up to the plate – Oh, the sports metaphors. They'll never die.
  • Breaking down silos – This one is popular in government. Those silos. Are they full of grain?
  • Paradigm shift – This one quickly became overused after several books were published with the phrase in the title.
  • Going forward – This means next. Say next.
  • Put it in the pipeline – Would that be the Alaskan version?
  • Get granular – Oh, just stop saying this. I picture grains of sugar and salt.
  • Run it up the flagpole – Proof that some phrases never die.
  • Put your ducks in a row – Those who are easily distracted can't hear this without picturing momma ducks and their ducklings. Sitting in a row next to the grains of salt by the Alaskan pipeline.
  • My door is always open – Anyone who says this usually means anything but.
  • Pick your brain – This one has a rather zombie-like appeal.
  • Burning the candle at both ends – How about just say that you're working hard?
  • Earning your chops – I've seen far too many resumes with this phrase lately. Better to leave off the cliches when attempting to land a job in a creative field.
  • Teamwork makes the dream work – At least this one is funny. But it would be hard to hear in a meeting without laughing out loud.
  • Failure is not an option – You'll feel like you're starring with Ed Harris in Apollo 13 if you hear this line.
  • It is what it is – Much too flippant to say in a business meeting. Only say this around your friends.
  • The data never lies – The data never lies, but your colleagues will be annoyed if you say this to them.
  • Literally – Avoid this word. It is overused and is rarely used correctly. Anyone with an English degree will be secretly rolling their eyes at you.


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