It’s Not Small Talk, It’s Social Ritual

Small talk is not exactly an introvert’s favorite pastime. In fact, the simple phrase small talk can be code for torture.

Let’s ditch that whole frame, banishing small talk and its associated negative feelings from your experience forever. Sound good? Great.

But how are we going to do that? Am I proposing we all become isolated mountaintop monks?

If you’re into that, go for it. However, if you’re like most of us and live in the city, suburbs, or even a small town, that means you’re around people often, including new folks you’ve never met before or only barely know. So, how do we avoid small talk without gallivanting off to a mountaintop far, far way?

The answer is to replace dreaded small talk with enjoyable social rituals. Once you incorporate social rituals into your everyday life in place of small talk, you never have to make small talk again.

Let’s talk more about the difference between small talk and social rituals.

Small Talk: pointless, a waste of time, shallow, obnoxious, draining.  

Social Rituals: inherently meaningful and fulfilling, proving and fortifying an underlying deeper connection, richly shared human experience, transcending culture and language.

Examples of social rituals include sharing meals together, bringing gifts to people in the midst of major life events, like baby showers and housewarmings, and yes—doing what all our ancestors have done since language was conceived—merely commenting on the weather. The distinction between small talk and social rituals is primarily one of mindset.

The mentality of small talk is, “Let me just get through this.”

This is centered on the self and discounts the humanity and dynamism of the other person. The other person is fascinating! They’ve lived decades of life already. They have interesting preferences like favorite songs and scents that make them feel warm and cozy or unsettled and scared. They probably have hilarious stories to tell, and they really have all the same basic experiences you do. The way we typically think about and engage in small talk ignores all this richness to everyone’s detriment.

The mentality of a social ritual is, “I’m human, and you’re human. Let’s be humans together.”

Because the mentalities of small talk versus social ritual are starkly different, there is an observable visual distinction between the two.

If you see people trying to survive a small talk situation, you’ll see their postures are rigid and closed, and their facial expressions are tense and vacant, if not unhappy. Their eyes might be darting around, looking for a chance to leave or distractedly searching for who else is in the room. Their postures, expressions, and eye movements all indicate lack of engagement in their current conversation.

On the other hand, if you see people sharing a social ritual, the basics are roughly the same: they’re having a conversation with each other or interacting in some common way. The key difference is their body postures are soft and open, their facial expressions are relaxed and joyful, and their eyes are resting calmly on the person they’re talking with.

These outer distinctions are manifestations of the internal distinctions between small talk and social ritual. When you focus on softening your stance or relaxing your forehead, it’ll help you shift to the mindset that results in the characteristic outer softening of social ritual.

Here are five secret tools you can keep in your back pocket to help make new interactions feel more like social rituals and less like meaningless small talk—even if you’re talking about something as simple and timeless as the weather.

Tool #1: Before you leave the house, anticipate connection

This is a tiny step in your day, and yet it has huge benefits to get you into the proper headspace for bonding with new people as well as people you already know and love.

Before you leave the house, as you’re brushing your teeth or putting on your shoes, fondly remember recent social rituals you’ve witnessed around you. Then, look forward to more of those that you’ll be sharing with people throughout your day or evening.

Allow yourself to look forward to those little connection moments—even unspoken ones like acknowledging eye contact or a warm smile.

Tool #2: Notice rituals happening around you

As you go about your day-to-day life, notice little social rituals happening around you with heightened awareness and appreciation. Notice as you’re in line at the grocery store the sweet smile the customer in front of you shares with the cashier as they bond over how delicious the cherries are right now. As you head into work, notice your colleague opening the door for a woman who then looks up from her phone and smiles at him appreciatively.

These little moments of connection are happening around you all the time. When you notice and appreciate them more and more, you feel full and happy and connected with people. It’s the same phenomenon you experience when you look to buy a certain car and start seeing its make and model everywhere. When you’re looking for social rituals in your everyday, you’ll see them!

Tool #3: Use the environment to begin the dance gently

When you’re out and about, like at a cocktail party or heading out of a yoga class, feel free to begin the social ritual dance gently.

If you’d like to connect more with someone who seems pleasant and open, bring up the weather or something about the environment or venue you’re in: the beautiful decor or an intense vinyasa pose.

Making a comment about the environment on a large scale (weather) or small scale (the immediate surroundings) is a great, natural way to ease into the social ritual space with a new person. From there, be gently inquisitive about their experience. Social ritual doesn’t work if you’re not asking questions and seeking others’ thoughts and opinions. That’s the whole fun of it and precisely what distinguishes it from meaningless small talk!

So, make sure you remember they are dynamic and interesting individuals, and treat your interaction as a small treasure hunt to find out new things about them even if it’s only the simplest of things. Learning things about them doesn’t always have to be through words. You can notice a quality of theirs by the way they’re standing or by a piece of jewelry they’re wearing.

Tool #4: Be patient with others

When someone is talking your ear off without seemingly paying any attention to YOU, remember they’re trying to participate in the social ritual the best way they know how.

Perhaps it’s also a social ritual to be patient and understanding when others might be a bit awkward and flustered in the moment. By slowing down and relaxing yourself, you’ll be gently inviting them to do the same with you.

Tool #5: Enjoy the process

When you view the experience of a light-hearted conversation with your new frame of social ritual, you are free to genuinely enjoy whatever conversation you find yourself in.

This connection frame suits you. You are an introvert, after all. Deep connections are your specialty, friend. Assuming that connection exists upon seeing someone new, even before saying hello, makes for a rich modus operandi and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Before you know it, the stress and pressure of making small talk on the spot melts into a curious and open-minded exploration of how to simply and genuinely connect human to human.

Share your thoughts.

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  • Peta Shepherd

    I’m an intorvert but try to put myself out there to engage with other people – I’d much rather be at home in my pj’s. THE problem I strike all the time is that I do all of the engaging; ask the questions, show the interest but it is rarely if ever reciprocated. When they have run out of things to say about themselves the conversation stops. What am I doing wrong????

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  • Max!

    Love this new way of looking at small talk. Very well put. I’ve come to appreciate small talk with strangers more now that I’m older. I’m more comfortable with myself and one day it just dawned on me that others may feel the same dread about small talk.

  • Marlana Sherman

    I use the second tool all the time. Since we are so observant, it makes it easier to give a compliment on jewelry or some other item a person is wearing. Sometimes this can be an excellent icebreaker. I still do not enjoy all small talk and I still feel awkward at times doing it but I still try.

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  • Kelly Sloan

    Personally, one of the things that helped me get a little better at this was recognizing that the bar isn’t actually that high. I think a lot of people associate anxiety and fear of judgement with small talk, but really whoever you’re talking to is really easy to please in these situations.

    In fact, I find not speaking is actually the best way to ensure the conversation stretches on forever. If you just give your conversation partner a response – virtually any response – you fulfill your part of the ritual and, ritual fulfilled, everyone is happy to move on.

    They’re talking about bagels? Do you have any information at all about a time you once bought bagels? About someone you know who really likes or dislikes bagels? A not-really-funny-but-okay pun about bagels? Any of the above will do. Your comment doesn’t have to add anything at all to the conversation, in fact, the more basic the better. It’s like an unspoken game of Six Degrees of Separation.

    I see you have a bagel. Yes, it is a blueberry bagel. I like the cinnamon raisin ones. I saw some raisin toast in the supermarket. I like XY supermarket but sometimes shop at Z.

    • Debbie Grace

      Your words are really helpful for me. Thank you. <3

      • Kelly Sloan

        I’m happy I could help. 🙂

  • yrdach

    I would like to see this article take into account a certain sub-section of introverts, those of us on the autism spectrum. Our relationship with ritualized behavior is complex, can often be demeaning, and when we buy into a societal ritual, deviation from that can be anxiety inducing, or worse precipitate a meltdown. For some context, and to self-identify some of my own bias when approaching this article, I have more than a few times be called out on, or have had undesired comments made about my tendency towards “ritualized” behavior. My normal response to this, is that everyone has rituals, many are just cultural artifacts that they buy into without questioning or thinking about it, where as my rituals tend to be logical and pragmatic in nature and I do not subscribe to certain behaviors simply because my culture dictates I should. So in the case of changing “small talk” into “social ritual”, via a mental paradigm shift more than any real change, small talk itself has a ritualistic quality for many, it sets up another possibly rigid social interaction that those of us who are, well quite frankly, maladaptive when it comes to socialization must learn to navigate. Granted, we can, and are certainly capable of this, but the tendency towards ritualized behaviors means increased chances of miscommunication and conflict when encountering individuals who do not share these culturally created social rituals, potentially increases negative reactions in one’s in group, and certainly exacerbating conflict cross-culturally when an out-group does not recognize the same rituals a person on the autism spectrum has come to expect. I think using “social rituals” in this form could end up being detrimental to many folks, being that near 1.5% of the population now qualifies as having an autism spectrum disorder. As lovely as the idea sounds, the potential short-comings would need to be addressed, the social rituals, reinforced via shared notions of what is appropriate and constitutes our understanding of reality (Phenomenological theory by Garfinkle illustrates this well) would have to be expansive, flexible, and able to incorporate a great deal of difference, else anyone, not just those on the spectrum, prone to black and white ideological outlooks will use deviation from this as a means to demean, ostracize, and fear other populations.

    • I’m introvert and Asperger’s and I was reading thinking, I get the point, but it was swapping one set of behaviour I need to memorise to do properly (read not look a complete freak) to another set of behaviour. In those situations, a connection isn’t being made. It may be a social ritual but connection isn’t the word – when a connection is actually made, it stops being social ritual/small talk and becomes connection.

      I can do connection, prescribed social rituals with foreign rules are another thing altogether.

  • Ray Doraymefa

    Though I’m in the 2nd percentile in smalltalk skill (barely inching out Lurch from The Addams Family), I do like the lyrics from “What a Wonderful World” sung by Louis Armstrong:
    …The colors of a rainbow, so pretty in the sky
    …Are also on the faces of people going by
    …I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do
    …They’re really saying, I love you

    [Words written by Bob Thiele and George Weiss]

  • Ted Delorme

    This actually answers a few questions I didn’t even know I had, but definitely needed the answers for. Thank you!

  • Judy

    Interesting perspective, certainly worth a try. Thanks for sharing.