Benjamin Peterson isn’t one for small talk.
While waiting in line at the bank recently, the 21-year-old from Lino Lakes, Minn., pretended to be texting on his cellphone to avoid a conversation with the man standing behind him.
It didn’t work. After 15 minutes of awkward silence, the man finally broke down and asked, “So, have you had the new Wendy’s pretzel burger yet?”
Anyone who discussed the weather — ad nauseam — at a recent holiday party knows that making small talk isn’t always easy. Conversing with strangers, acquaintances or relatives you rarely see can be uncomfortable, if not downright painful.
As Peterson and many others have discovered, the explosion of digital devices has given us a handful of tools to avoid engaging with others. But small talk is a big deal when it comes to personal and professional success.
As trivial as topics such as the weather and the traffic may seem, they are necessary rungs on a ladder of more meaningful conversation.
“Talking about things that are not intensely personal is the foundation of any real relationship,” says matchmaker Sheila Delaney.
A simple conversation can lead to new connections, which can lead to new business or romantic opportunities, says speech coach Diane Windingland, author of “Small Talk, Big Results.”
The increasing reliance on cellphones, tablets and e-readers is cutting into opportunities for small talk, and many of us — especially young people — are becoming less adept at it.
“Because we’ve become so desensitized with electronics, people have lost the art of conversation,” says life coach Barb Churchill. “This generation hasn’t been trained how to speak in more than 140 characters.”
Peterson admits his generation is terrible at small talk, in part because social media fill the need for meaningless conversation.
“If someone were riding in the elevator, and I were to get on, I can almost guarantee that if the person is under 30, a cellphone will be pulled out,” he says
But no matter how “social” our media get, there’s no escaping at least a brief conversation from time to time.
“Small talk is like speed dating,” says Nicole Marshall, 37, an ICU nurse, perpetual partygoer and self-proclaimed “professional small-talker.”
“You get to find out a quick little snippet about people in a short amount of time,” she says. “Small talk opens the door for relationships … and often leads to something great, like a new friend.”