• Issue #29

Small Talk actually has a purpose

 A spray-painted, kind-of-smiling emoji, on a concrete-like, textured background.

Lessons in the Small Talk of Higher Education

If you’ve been reading Higher Ed Hot Takes for a while, you can probably infer that I am not a fan of small talk. I like big, weird, deep conversations.

I once pretended (for like 14 minutes) that at HighEdWeb, I was going to be outgoing and network-y. Then I quickly found one other weirdo, somehow Italo Calvino came up, and I spent the rest of the conference deep in conversation with my new friend.

I’m also known for meeting someone and asking them about their deepest fears within the first five minutes.

Anyway, like I said, small talk isn’t my thing, but it does serve a purpose, and we need to grapple with it.

Imagine entering a crowded room where no one seems to know anyone else. A room full of complete strangers. And you want to diffuse the awkwardness, but you also want to feel like others have an interest in conversation. What’s your opening line? Or, put another way, do you start with weather or traffic?

I live in Minnesota. We had 90-degree days last week. Ten days before, we had an unprecedented blizzard. And today, it’s 31 degrees, and fresh snow is on the ground. I like to call this a hot weather sandwich. Weather is my personal best bet for small talk.

But, other topics are pretty standard - the food wherever you are, any comforts or discomforts (there’s quite a line for the bathroom, for example), what you do for work, or that person over there who just did that weird thing.

How someone responds to those kinds of conversation openers gives us a lot of information.

  • Is this person going to reject me or make me feel foolish?
  • Is this person pretentious?
  • Is this person thinking profound things right now and not wanting to be bothered?
  • Is this person friendly and seemingly a good listener?
  • Does this person have a sense of humor?
  • Does this person show basic conversational consideration for other adults?

You see, small talk is a low-stakes bid. It’s like saying, “I’m bidding on you to chat with me for a few minutes. If that goes well, we’ll take it from there.” If someone dismisses you, disagrees with you, scolds you like a child, or meets your bid with a verbal tsunami, well, it was low stakes anyway. You can take the rest of your conversational energy chips, and find yourself a new partner.

You might also thank yourself for opening with the weather and not with “so, who are you voting for?” Small talk openers are ways to ease into (and maybe out of) a conversation. If we start too big, there’s just too much at stake.

Alright now, how on earth does this relate to higher education, you ask?

When students have tough questions, they ease into the conversation with you the only way they know how: by asking you easy questions (small talk) at first that are probably pretty obvious but are also relevant and a way to get the conversation rolling. In fact, they might have gotten the idea to ask you their opening question from the website, meaning the website is doing its job.

If you bark back, “It’s on the website. Please read the website,” you just lost their bid.

I am probably sharing with you something you may already be aware of. But, day after day, after day, we’re asked to make something more visible on the website or add this or that to every program page because it’s the thing that admissions and advising folks get the most questions about.

You might also know that we tend to best remember the first thing and the last thing someone says better than what they say in the middle. What are the chances that the questions that come up most frequently happen to be the first things students ask?

So, here are my thoughts:

  1. When people ask obvious-to-answer questions, how are our steeped-in-higher-ed-all-the-time colleagues responding? Are they accepting the bid or rejecting it?
  2. When someone opens a conversation with a seemingly obvious-to-answer question, are we sure this warrants a change to the website?

Small talk questions are not indicators that the website is failing. Small talk questions are bids to enter into a dialogue. And, dialogues over time are the bids of friendship.

Your students are not going to develop a relationship with your website. But, they will with your institution. Be humane and answer their bids in kind.

- Kristin Van Dorn