Even as more people are vaccinated and restrictions around social contact loosen, the past year of isolation will have lingering and sometimes unexpected side effects. In an effort to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19, most people’s outings for necessities have been kept quick and all business, leaving no time for small talk. As we return to a more normal lifestyle, it may take time to relearn how to carry out these important little interactions that give people a greater sense of community and belonging.
Many people claim to dislike small talk – the little automatic interactions with others that may not have any deep meaning, but help to forge connections making mundane activities more enjoyable. But missing these daily dialogues with co-workers, cashiers or neighbors can make people feel invisible like they are not being really seen or heard. With the inherent difficulties interacting virtually, many people find they are frustrated with being talked over and that conversations lack the light, spontaneous quality of in-person chit-chat.
According to a recent article in The Walrus, small talk is a great equalizer that helps people in different roles at work or elsewhere feel valued. Setting aside a few minutes for pleasantries and small talk at the beginning of a virtual meeting may seem insignificant but it can be meaningful to create a more inclusive environment. Checking in with friends and family with a text, email or phone call helps people feel more connected, even when there is little news to report. Recent research suggests that when people aren’t able to chat informally with their colleagues while working from home, they feel more isolated, lonely, forgotten, and less respected.
While it’s important to be safe on social media with strangers, more people have been using digital media to connect with others this past year. Sometimes sharing information with someone outside your immediate family or social circle can be liberating and help people gauge the response from others without risk.
As people return to more activities outside their homes, it will take time to polish their rusty social skills, but with practice, these awkward interactions will feel less clumsy and people will be able once again to toss out a random comment or compliment with ease. In the meantime, a virtual morning coffee chat or Friday happy hour may help colleagues and friends stay connected and support one another.