Th 331768

Small talk, big business

Feb. 1, 2010
The knack of turning conversation into something worthwhile for the business
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The knack of turning conversation into something worthwhile for the business

by Toni S. Adams, RDH, MA

Hello, how are you?
Hot enough for ya?
How about those Yankees/Niners/Cowboys?!
Did you have a good weekend?
What's new with you?
Sorry to hear you were sick.

And so on, and so on, and so on ….


We call this small talk, idle conversation, and empty words. Scholars refer to it as phatic communication. In a busy dental office, however, it's often thought of as a waste of time. Even though we might think that an activity that is referred to by such adjectives as “small,” “idle,” and “empty” would not be very important, the purpose of this article is to show that this chitchat is big, active, and full of meaning, and that it plays an important role in the delivery of dental care and in an office working environment. I will talk about the aspects and benefits of casual conversation and share a few tips on how to do it better.


“Small talk” is an unfortunate name for such an important interaction. Did this social ritual get its name because it is not valued, or is it undervalued because of its name? We can't be sure, but researchers have shown that it is a misnomer. Casual communication is conversation for the purpose of connecting, bonding, and creating relationships and friendships with other people. It is how people judge each other before they become more familiar. If we assume that small talk is easy and extra to business, we are wrong on both counts. It is an important skill and the foundation upon which business relationships and subsequent business transactions are built, and it is not always so easy.


We think that shooting the breeze, chewing the fat, or having a gabfest is not as purposeful as “real” or “big” or more formal conversations that might mediate business transactions or convey “important” information such as patient education or treatment information. McCarthy8 studied small talk in service contexts (a visit to the hairdresser, a driving lesson) and concluded that it is not just incidental, it is important enough in these situations for people to work hard at. How can it be any less in a dental hygiene appointment where health is at stake? So formal conversation is not necessarily better or more important than informal conversation; both are significant but serve different purposes and both benefit all parties in a dental office.

Small talk benefits the patients. It brings people closer together, helps them find common ground, reduces fear, gives an impression of competence and involvement, and so establishes trust, all significant advantages for dental patients and their caregivers. It tells the patient, “You're in good hands; I am friendly, and I want to help you.” This facilitates connections and lays foundations for work. People who feel connected and trusting are more likely to share important information. If we skip the chat, we can seem cold and unapproachable. Additionally, we can sometimes find clues to health problems in the social communication. You might hear a weak or altered voice or find a hint in a comment. “How are you?” “OK, I guess.” “You guess? What's happening? ....”

Small talk benefits the workers. “The mental gymnastics that come with social interaction … may produce the byproduct … of making our social lives more gratifying while providing boosts to our cognitive functioning.”9 Engaging in small talk can actually make us happier and smarter. Social interaction requires thought so it exercises the mind. As little as 10 minutes of pleasant conversation can improve brain function, including memory and performance on tests, just about as well as “intellectual” activities such as reading, studying, or doing crossword puzzles.

Small talk benefits the office. Social chat among workers and managers helps offices to develop and maintain “a cohesive working environment.”3 A little enjoyable social interaction between managers and staff members improves communication overall, which positively influences attitudes about work and can result in enhanced productivity and efficiency and reduced turnover and absenteeism.7

Because of the benefits to patients, workers, and businesses, the opportunity to engage in small talk improves satisfaction with work encounters; it nourishes us and reminds us why we became health–care providers in the first place. It just feels good to realize that we and our patients have touched each other. There is one problem. We take it for granted that we can “make” small talk, that it is somehow easy and not to be counted as a skill. Actually, not everyone can “do” small talk because such interactions are complex and demanding and not “small” at all. There is always room for improvement with any skill, so here are some tips for making conversation with patients in a dental office.


Keep the focus on the patient. Remember that you are looking for clues about health as you chat and that your patient may or may not be interested in your vacation, your children, or your life. Some are, of course, so answer their questions briefly, but then turn the conversation back to them. You can encourage people to keep talking by asking open–ended questions and by giving what professionals call back–channel responses such as “oh,” “uh–huh,” and “then what happened?” Be especially careful to avoid subjecting patients to a barrage of your own personal information as they lie back with their mouths full of fingers and instruments and are unable to participate, unless of course they ask for it.

Listen. This is related to the previous tip. Listening is the essential partner to talking and is central to the success of any interaction. Do not interrupt. If you do so frequently you could be seen as uninterested, uncaring, or even disrespectful. Your undivided attention and back–channel responses do more than just confirm understanding; they improve the speaker's fluency and project an image of concern and “good listenership.”7 Researchers studied speakers and listeners who could and could not see each other. Speakers who could see their listeners and received feedback from them were more articulate and succinct compared to those who did not. Listeners who could see the speakers understood better and remembered more compared to those who could not.5 So attention and feedback make speakers more articulate and enhance listeners' comprehension and memory.

Watch the topics. What we say during social interactions is usually not as important as the fact that we're connecting, but some subjects are more appropriate for small talk than others. Debra Fine, who teaches a class nicknamed “Chatting 101,” says the most important thing to remember is to “assume the burden of the other person's comfort.”6 It is usually safe to talk about sports, hobbies, weather, family (if not too personal), job, hometown, celebrities, music, pets, the cute baby or child, food, school and education, movies, neutral current events, and so forth. Avoid such topics as politics, religion, finances, intimate information, anything negative or offensive, or subjects that seem to make the other person uncomfortable (read the nonverbal communication).

Remember to get down to business. Don't get stuck in small talk mode. Chatting can be enjoyable and you may find a lot in common with some people so it might be difficult to transition to business topics, but you must in order to accomplish the purpose of the visit. You can say, “I am really enjoying our conversation, but I must get to work. I hope we can talk more later,” or something like that.

Take special care when trying to make small talk with English learners. Casual conversation in English is difficult for some people with limited English proficiency, primarily because they may not have the vocabulary to converse about a variety of random topics. As a result, they may converse more slowly or irregularly when trying to carry on a social discussion.

First, be patient. You are establishing a relationship and trust. Second, try to find interests in common because English learners are more likely to have developed vocabularies surrounding their personal interests.1

It is not necessary to make small talk with every patient every time. Some patients may be shy or rushed or distracted or in pain or simply not interested. Read their nonverbal communication and back off if indicated. Some days you yourself may not be up to making conversation, so do your best but don't force it. Remember that it is pleasant conversation that reaps the benefits.

Keep working at it. You are developing a skill and just as with any skill, the ability to converse increases with practice. One of the outcomes of having practiced clinical dental hygiene for 26 years is that I am usually able to make small talk with just about anyone.


The social interactions that we have with patients are just as important and central to care as our more formal conversations about dental disease and treatment options. Small talk is, in fact, huge. It lays the foundation for doing business and also benefits all participants personally. To do it better at work, we need to focus on the patient, listen, remember to move on to business communication, be aware of how difficult small talk can be for English learners, use judgment regarding the topics that we choose to speak about and who we try to speak with, and practice. Our social conversations with patients and co–workers can be pleasant parts of our workdays, so enjoy them even more now that you know how valuable they are.

About the Author

Toni S. Adams, RDH, MA, practiced clinical dental hygiene for 26 years and also earned baccalaureate and masters degrees in communication studies. She now enjoys writing for and speaking to dental professionals about communication issues. She was the Philips Sonicare/RDH 2009 Mentor of the Year, has won awards for speaking, writing, leadership, and scholarship, and wrote a communication handbook for dental professionals. She welcomes comments and inquiries to [email protected] or at


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