I once worked in Japan. In many ways, it was an ideal job, and I was paid very well. But I felt miserable, lonely, and pointless.
As the only foreigner in an 80 strong staff, I can remember passing the entire eight hour day without saying a word to anyone. Those days were tough; I can still clearly feel the effect it had on me. A lethargy used to come over me on those days, where I couldn’t muster the energy to do anything productive.
Conversation matters more than we realize. Human beings are social creatures. We crave connection and belonging. Long ago, our physical survival depended on it. Today, our emotional and mental wellbeing rely on it. We weren’t designed to be alone. And yet isolation and loneliness are increasingly prevalent in today’s workplace.
Benefits of small talk
Small talk isn’t just a pleasant nicety. It is essential to our wellbeing, and to our mental health.
Behavioral scientists have found that feeling socially connected increases health and happiness while feeling disconnected contributes to feeling lonely and unhappy.
Making small talk as we go about our working day makes us feel more connected to the space in this world that we inhabit. It’s the small talk; niceties with the receptionist every morning, a mid-morning break with a colleague, stopping by someone’s desk for a chat; about the everyday things; the weather, sport, going on holidays; that matter, and that shouldn’t be trivialized. An experiment conducted by psychologists in British Colombia found that regular social interactions through small talk resulted in significantly higher positive emotions than those who didn’t engage.
Conversation aids connection
It is a modern irony that despite being hyper-connected, we often find ourselves lonely and isolated. Isolation and loneliness are increasingly common social anxieties of the 21st-century workplace. Because you see more and more we replace conversation with technology and assume it works the same. But we are beginning to see the detrimental effects of an over-reliance on technology at the expense of face to face conversation. A third of Irish people cited loneliness as a factor in triggering mental health issues. (Pieta house)
The solution is more complex than one simple word. But talking certainly helps.
‘’Talking is regarded as the most effective means of looking after your own mental health.’’
In the workplace, the key to successful relationships is in learning to connect with people, not just communicate with them. We connect through face to face conversation, where we are present and engaged and showing the other person that we value them by giving them the gift of our time.
Conversation creates engagement
When we make time for someone, check in with them, make the effort to have a chat with them, we show them that we care. Gallup has listed ‘caring’ as one of the core elements that predict employee engagement, performance, and productivity. Regarding small talk as superficial and unnecessary is short-sighted at best.
“Fancy action plans don’t create engagement. Ongoing two-way dialogue creates engagement.” Gallup.
Multiple studies have shown that people who have a best friend in work are more actively engaged in their work, more motivated to do good work, more productive, and happier. Tom Rath, in his book Vital Friends, states that people who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their work.
Conversation in the workplace isn’t just a nice noise to hear, it is an essential component of a healthy, dynamic, connected workplace. Talking creates trust, understanding, and empathy. Creating a culture where conversation is prioritized, from the top down, and on a daily basis, should be one of the core focuses of any corporate wellbeing program.