Small Talk: It’s Bigger than you Think

Nobody ever says they like small-talk.  I sure don’t.  In fact, I avoid corporate fun/cocktail parties/team-building events and their ilk like the plague and said avoidance is accompanied by the rationale:  “There’s nothing worse than standing around making small talk.”  Stupid small-talk.  Ugh.  Hate it, not gonna do it, done and dusted.

So the other night, I walked into a kick-off meeting for a running training program and immediately was confronted with the typical small-talk accouterments in full display:  wine, soft drinks, crackers, cheese, and fresh fruit.  All accompanied by the injunction to mingle and get to know one another.  Well, damn.  I thought I’d learn about the training program, meet the coach, and be on my merry way.  Instead I looked around at all those unfamiliar faces and realized I was going to have to engage in the dreaded small-talk.  Ugh.

I knew just walking out or clamming up wasn’t a great way to start a five month training program with these folks.  Then I realized I had an opportunity to re-frame this potentially unpleasant situation by using one of E. Paul Torrance’s Creativity Skills:  “Look at it another way.” “Look at it another way” means shifting your thinking so that you can look at something (a person, a situation, whatever) from a different visual or psychological perspective or mindset.  What might be all the ways I could look at small- talk differently?  Could I look at it as something not inane, but as an opportunity to learn something useful or even meaningful from others?

Despite not feeling it (and also not 100% sure this would work), I introduced myself to the coach, took a deep breath, and started small-talking, but thinking about making this small-talk something useful and meaningful.  Only a few awkward sentences in, as I struggled not to talk about the weather and instead to talk about the reason we were all there – running, we discovered we’re both fans of relatively unknown new kind of running shoe (On Shoes, they ROCK) and I shared with him how awesome their trail-running model is.  He shared some super helpful information including some great ideas on how to stay hydrated as I increased my running distance.  I walked away feeling successful that my small-talk job had not only yielded utility and meaning, but that I’d completed it and could now make my escape.  As I made my way to the door, though, a woman smiled and said “Hi, I’m Lee.”   As with my coach conversation, we talked about running — clearly something important to both of us since we’d made a significant commitment.  It turns out we share the same challenges in attempting to train for long distance running on our own and also share similar performance fears around not being fast enough or good enough to be in an actual group running program.  [Side note:While I know it’s highly unlikely I’m the only one to ever have those fears, the reality is that sharing those fears out loud with someone else and then being able to laugh about it made me feel so much better.] Now when I’m running and I start to feel that inferior performance vibe creeping in, as I often do, I can reflect back on that conversation and know that others are probably feeling the same way. And whether Lee is ahead of me or behind me, I know that at least one other person feels that way regardless of where she is in the pack.  Nice.  Another useful and meaningful connection that started with small talk.

My urge to escape diminished, I engaged in several more small-talk conversations.  When I finally left, I realized small-talk isn’t small at all, it’s merely the opening gambit toward something bigger — toward making meaningful connections.  I mean, when you think about, how else do you make new connections/friends/relationships?  Small-talk is the way to go because when you think about it, what other alternatives do you have?  Full-on interrogation?  Awkward!  Deep, philosophical debate?  Unlikely.  Or just flat-out ignoring people?   No connection happening, no how.  By looking at small-talk as an opportunity instead of just a boring task to be gotten through, I didn’t default to the typical small-talk about the weather.  I made an effort to NOT talk small, but to talk about something meaningful to me.

One shift in perception changed a dreaded chore into an opportunity.  Creativity is some powerful juju, my friends.  How might you look at something in another way today?

Walking into a Connection with Creativity

It’s a reality that for me regular exercise is crucial to clearing the mental cobwebs, calling a halt to ruminative thoughts, and giving me an overall uplift in mood.  It also burns calories and means I don’t have to spend money buying bigger pants, but that’s a whole other post.  In fact, exercise (whether it’s running or just getting my @ss up and moving) has been a key factor in helping me re-connect to creativity.  A lot of research has been conducted to determine whether there is a connection between exercise and creativity, but there’s not necessarily a very clear-cut or definitive answer as to whether and how exercise impacts creativity.  Part of the reason for that is just down to how research is conducted and all the variables that go into that process.  Things like:

  • What type of exercise are the participants doing?   Vigorous?  Easy?  Something that requires skill?  Or something anyone can do?
  • Who are the participants and what are they like?  Are they all the same age, same physical fitness level?  What are their backgrounds?  Are they made up of different ages, different fitness levels or are they all somewhat similar?
  • How are they measuring creativity?  Are they only measuring divergent thinking?  Are they only looking at convergent thinking?  Or are both types of thinking being measured?  And what instruments or methods are they using to assess?

There are many more variables that could be considered for each study and while this level of detail is important for research, it makes it hard for those of us who like to see things in black and white (i.e., me) to get a definitive answer.  Imagine a multitude of studies, each one looking at perhaps different aspects of creativity and perhaps assessing how different types of exercise might impact it.  The possibilities and permutations are endless, so it’s not surprising there isn’t a one size fits all every time answer.  I wish I could be happy with that, but since I know it works for me I’m always hoping for some incontrovertible proof, dammit.

So, even though I wasn’t looking for it, I found a pretty dang compelling study, conducted by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University, that offers something more definitive.  As studies go, this one was very straightforward and focused on comparing divergent/convergent thinking performance between participants who were seated and those who were walking (with a few other variations thrown in and described further on).  The researchers used tests that are used frequently in this type of research; the Guilford Alternative Uses Test (GAU) and the Compound Remote-Association test (CRA).  GAU is considered a test of divergent thinking where participants are required to come up with as many alternate uses for an object as possible, while the CRA is considered a test of convergent thinking requiring participants to identify the common word associated with three seemingly disparate words.

A number of different experiments were conducted using different combinations/types of walking and sitting:

  • Sitters vs walkers
  • Sitting, then walking vs Sitting
  • Walking, then sitting vs Sitting
  • Walking outside
  • Walking inside on a treadmill

And spoiler alert, but hey I can’t NOT tell you how it all came out:  Oppezzo and Schwartz found that walking increases creativity, specifically divergent thinking (coming up with numerous new and novel ideas).  Even better, these benefits hold true regardless of whether you’re walking outside on a glorious sun-filled day or just walking on your treadmill in the basement.  And if you’re sitting around binge-watching your latest fave and then go walkabout or vice versa, it still works.  That’s really good news for those of us who spend the majority of our work week inside and often at a desk.  Now we know we have an easy option to jump start our creative juices by getting up and taking a walk around the building.

Next time you’re running low on ideas or seeking a creative jump start, remember this:  You don’t have to run a marathon, you don’t have to reach a state of utter exhaustion, in fact you don’t have to do anything special at all … you just have to get up and take a walk.

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