Social Media Matters Because Successful Business Relationships are Built Upon Small Talk

Updated 1/8/23

The use case for social media to develop business relationships gets a bad rap. Social platforms have the reputation of being where people tweet that they’re going to the bathroom, take selfies in their car, photograph their chicken salad sandwich, and test out the newest dance craze. These posts are viewed as irrelevant at best – foolishness at worst.

It’s drivel. It’s meaningless. It’s small talk. So why should your business invest in social?

I mean, who cares what someone ate for breakfast?

The truth is, we all care.

Wait. What?

Business is Built with Relationships

We all know that we do business with people we “know, like, and trust.” I can hear you saying it out loud while you’re reading it. It’s a cliché because it’s true. In business, this is why we put a huge emphasis on likability.  

It’s not a fair world. It’s not about the best product. We don’t hire the best candidate. We don’t promote the best person. We promote, hire, and purchase from people we like. It’s changing with the diversity and inclusion landscape – but that’s another blog post.

So how can you become likable in business? Engage in effective small talk. 

Small Talk Builds Business Relationships

Small talk builds business relationships. If you agree, you’re done reading. If you’re in doubt, let’s take a step back. What is small talk? 

You may think about discussing the weather trends as small talk. Meaning, the talk is unimportant. Does it matter if you discuss whether Aaron Rodgers will retire next season? No. The Packers won’t take your advice and neither will Aaron Rodgers or his agent. What small talk does, however, is determine whether or not the person next to you at the pub, conference or dinner is willing to continue to talk to you. 

If small talk is bad, what are we supposed to talk about anyway? Are we supposed to solve the energy crisis with a stranger at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast? Do you sit down next to a person at a conference and pour out your latest heartbreak? No. You don’t. Why? Because “big talk” is often inappropriate in public, business settings.

Small talk’s role in our lives is far from small. People who think we waste time talking about our cat, lunch, etc. fail to appreciate that small talk is the structure upon which business relationships are built. Small talk naysayers are often self-conscious about their small talk skills.

“One of the hardest things about small talk is finding something to talk about besides the weather. But, pro networkers have figured out that most people like to talk about themselves. Take that and run with it.” Vernon Gunnarson

Small Talk is an Emotional Bridge

In personal relationships, small talk is a bridge to an emotional discussion. It’s dipping your toe in the conversation water to make sure its temperature isn’t too hot or too cold. It helps you evaluate the emotional status of your potential conversationalist.

So what does this have to do with business? All relationships contain a personal element – even in business. If you’re an employee, you need to have an emotional bridge – psychological safety – so that you can have harder discussions – like policy change, promotion opportunities, and even grievances. 

Dismissing small talk as banal and pedestrian puts you at a major disadvantage in business settings. All team building requires psychological safety. That doesn’t happen without small talk. With regards to business mentorships, cutting off small talk may cut you off from larger conversations and, ultimately,  deeper connections. Keep this in mind the next time someone asks you an annoying question like, “What are you doing?” It may be they’re just testing the waters.

Do you remember the last time you approached someone with a request? How did you start?

“Many times, much as in the outside world, family members preface a highly anxious issue with small talk. If you can listen without dismissal to what seems like small talk by a spouse, child, teen or parent, you may facilitate an opportunity for crucial disclosure.” Suzanne Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP

But Small Talk is Annoying and Difficult

It was for me, too, before I started. You do it on social media the same way as in real life. Starting conversations with questions helps – especially if they are open-ended questions. This only backfires if you’re talking to someone shyer than you. The truth is that most people like to talk about themselves. It’s just a fact.

Practice. Read “How to Win Friends & Influence People.” Learn how to actively listen.

The next wedding you attend, ask a stranger how they know the bride. At your next meetup, ask the person a question about the subject matter. This is a great way to get better at small talk. It will not happen without practice.

“Small talk can lead to a host of outcomes, from a merely pleasant exchange to the signing of multimillion-dollar business deal.” Brett Nelson, Forbes 

Believe me, I used to panic while entering rooms full of people I don’t know. With practice, I found that a smile and greeting goes a long way and even people waiting for an elevator can have a perfectly good conversation. Why not leverage that opportunity?

Small Talk 2.0 – Build Business Relationships Online 

Enter social media. Specifically, Twitter. I think this is where most people meet others, though I could be wrong. For me, it’s where I’m open to conversations (small talk) with strangers. I could babble on incessantly about how much my life has changed because of the people I met. Let’s settle for one use case.

While working for a commercial general contractor, I met a Commercial Real Estate broker on Twitter. The good thing is that he also worked in the same geographical area as Riggins Construction. After interacting and reading Allen’s content, I knew he and my boss would hit it off. I had a crazy idea. Let’s all do lunch. At first, I was nervous. After all, this was my very first sales call.

But when Allen walked into the restaurant, all anxiety disappeared. It was all smiles and handshakes. The awkward small talk wasn’t awkward – it didn’t exist. Why? We did it online. We sat as friends because we were friends.

“Small talk is not wasted talk. It’s a social lubricant as essential as wine and laughter that allows strangers to make crucial first connections across demographic lines. And it’s far from meaningless.” Ruth Graham

Now, the next time you see someone you have a basis for continuing the friendship. You no longer need to talk about sports or weather — though you can. You can level up.

You can ask a question you’ve been dying to ask. You can tell them how you liked the blog post they wrote last week. You can brainstorm, collaborate, and actually become friends.

Small Talk Builds Trust in Business Relationships

The value of small talk is this: it builds trust over time. When it comes to business relationships, trust is the intangible element that makes our community stronger. I’m not going to tell you where I live, my first kiss, or my darkest secret right off the bat. Would you?

The point is this. Humans are social. We create business relationships by communicating. This includes body language, tone, inflection, micro-gestures, laughter, tears, expressions, and, yes, small talk.

If you want people to like you, be likable. There is no way around that.

Or, just enjoy your next business dinner for one in the corner. Alone.

25 Comments

  1. Carol Stephen on August 13, 2016 at 10:15 am

    I love your story and this, especially: “What you don’t know is we has spent the previous 20 minutes discussing what the best dog shampoo was.”

    Nobody blames the telephone if people say stupid things on it. And nobody blames the typewriter, either. Twitter is a way to connect. And you’re right: small talk is a bridge. Twitter helps us with that bridge.

    P.S. Whenever I type the word “bridge,” my fingers want to put a “t” at the end of it. 😀



  2. Bridget Willard on August 13, 2016 at 10:31 am

    You’re right, Carol. No one ever blames the phone, typewriter, Slack. But people are very dismissive about social media. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. That’s funny about “bridge.”



  3. Sherie Beth on August 13, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    Great post Bridget and a helpful reminder for this introvert! I know small talk is important, but I admit to struggling with it at times – especially in a room full of strangers 😉 Honestly, for me, social media is one of my favorite ways to connect as it starts with typing – instead of face-to-face – and gives me time to gather my thoughts about what I’d like to say!



  4. Cheryl LaPrade on August 13, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    Loved that story about introducing Allen to your boss and the quote you included from Ruth Graham… I often find that’s the best part about small talk for me (especially over twitter); that it breaks the ice and allows the conversation to be more natural when you actually meet in person! I’m certainly hoping to put this into practice when I attend WordCamp US in December – both online and off. 🙂



  5. Bridget Willard on August 13, 2016 at 6:41 pm

    And you hit the beauty of Twitter, Sherie. You can break the ice in a way that is less threatening. I’m getting better at parties but I’m still pretty bad.



  6. Bridget Willard on August 13, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    You hit the nail on the head, Cheryl. It does break the ice — both on and offline.



  7. Meg Delagrange on August 13, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    Is this the post you were avoiding blogging on Snapchat the other night? 😉 I had not thought of social media from this angle but I love it. I enjoy small talk and I enjoy deep intense conversations. I’m just as awkward on social media as I am in real life but social media has helped me to be myself…. I found out that people dig the real Meg and I like the real Meg.

    Social media has taught me how to get along with people better. Random thoughts, completely getting off track… But I had to think, hmmm, my interactions with Bridget began with small talk. I’ll never forget the day you commented on a photo I shared about how much I loved an Earl Grey latte and you went and tried and shared your own photo. Those kinds of genuine interactions are what I LOVE about social media.

    Also… this line made me laugh:
    “I even read one in the NYTimes about a “no small talk rule” when dating. Seriously? I wonder how that’s working out for you, pal. Or would that be small talk to ask?” Oh, I can tell ya, those “intense conversations only” relationships will weigh ya down real quick. Gotta have a good balance of both.



  8. Bridget Willard on August 13, 2016 at 9:19 pm

    All good points, Meg. That is exactly what I was referring to on Snapchat.
    Ha! Yes! The Earl Gray Latte! One day, we will toast one in person.



  9. Patricia on August 14, 2016 at 6:26 am

    You are right Bridget. It is about small talk. Sadly I never found that connection on Twitter, FB or even Pinterest. I found it on the now closed Tsū. Maybe it was because people were offered a few pennies for interaction but I made so many wonderful online relationships that we are still scrambling to find each other on the other (older) platforms. Tsū closed quite abruptly. I do think those of us who were honest about the relationships being true will remain in contact.



  10. Bridget Willard on August 14, 2016 at 7:49 am

    Patricia, It’s nice to see you here. I’m sorry about Tsu. Hopefully, you’ll find each other soon. Maybe Slack would work.



  11. sandy connolly on August 15, 2016 at 9:48 am

    Excellent points Bridget. And, I’m with Carol, the 20 minutes about dog shampoo gave me a smile – thank you for being you.



  12. Bridget Willard on August 15, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Thanks, Sandy. I appreciate you.



  13. Adam Fout on August 16, 2016 at 7:58 am

    I hate small talk, but you’re spot on with the questions bit — I’ve been doing that for a long time now. I think it’s helpful even with people you know, because even when I’ve known someone a long time, it can still get awkward when there’s not much news to catch up on.

    I like to ask people about things that genuinely interest me, like someone’s job. I don’t care what you do, I find the reasons behind what they do fascinating. I do this with hairdressers all the time — ask about the hours, when do people come in most, who gives the biggest tips, are they timed on the haircuts, what’s the best kind of work to do (color, cuts, prom styling), and just learn a little bit about what they do.

    Most people want to talk about themselves, and their job is a great place to learn about them.

    This is a great article Bridget — I hate small talk, but even just talking about it reminds me how important it is to building a relationship.

    That’s how we got to know each other anyway!



  14. Bridget Willard on August 16, 2016 at 9:04 am

    Adam, True. It feels like small talk is mindless chatter. But when you look at it as a springboard for deeper conversations, it makes sense. Also, you don’t realize its value until you no longer have it.



  15. Robert Nissenbaum on August 16, 2016 at 9:35 am

    I’m with Adam. Hate the small talk but….. you’re right. It’s a conversation starter and no relationship can begin without that first word. For me the trick has been to figure out how to open a conversation with something of value. It’s easy when the person opn the other end has similar interests (why posting personal content is a must).

    Excellent stuff!



  16. Bridget Willard on August 16, 2016 at 10:03 am

    Exactly, if you use Social Media to your benefit, you can give the person a launching place to start a conversation. But don’t go in too deep too soon or you’ll come off salesy. It’s a tricky thing. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Robert. I appreciate you. 😀



  17. Justine Pretorious on August 18, 2016 at 10:50 am

    Absolutely! All of your examples were spot on! I think if we didn’t have small talk we wouldn’t be able to have the big conversations! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!



  18. Bridget Willard on August 18, 2016 at 11:08 am

    Exactly, Justine. A conversation about our dogs can lead to other conversations. Etc.



  19. justine.pretorious on August 18, 2016 at 11:27 am

    Totally agree!



  20. Ruby on August 18, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    I love small talks even small talks especially the ones that involve dogs (or cats) + coffee. It’s my gauge.

    Well done, B!



  21. Bridget Willard on August 18, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks, Ruby. I think anything we say to one another is valuable.
    Communication is valuable in and of itself.



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