Small Talk, Big Benefits

Over the last three weeks, we have spent scores of hours on remote learning and large staff meetings via videoconferencing systems. Let’s face it – Zoom is the new normal.

I am so proud how quickly we were able to transfer our entire university online, but I have noticed there is something missing in this new age of online academia: small talk. The casual office conversations that we have by the coffee pot or water cooler are all but non-existent.

There’s a natural tendency to believe small talk is a waste of time, but that may be a mistake. Research shows that these seemingly insignificant interactions actually increase productivity and camaraderie, but with many people working by themselves at home, we’re missing those encounters. Communication about attitudinal states is weak outside the face-to-face mode and so it follows that emotional support is weakened and working alone can be, well, lonely.

So now more than ever, it is important that we recreate the functional equivalent of the water cooler chat. We need to bring it explicitly into our online conversations. We need to renew and reaffirm our in-person office bonds while videoconferencing.

Small talk may seem trivial, but it’s actually essential to creating rapport. I want to thank those colleagues who have taken the extra time to check-in–deans holding virtual Town Halls, department chairs hosting a remote tea, and professors carrying on with book clubs and painting classes. I encourage you to continue to socially check-in with your colleagues. On your next online session, perhaps take a few minutes to simply ask your colleagues, how are you?–three words that have never meant so much.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has been a reminder of the ways in which we are all connected. As social distancing is critical to give our health care system a fighting chance, the short-term loneliness and isolation will be difficult – definitely for our students, yes, but also for us. So let’s actively small talk with our colleagues because the benefits are big, both professionally and personally.

–Charles F. Zukoski, April 9, 2020