Small talk is a big deal.
More than a decade and a half ago, Sullivan & Cromwell, one of the most highly regarded (and typically “buttoned-up”) east coast law firms, was experiencing a culture crisis. Its annual staff turnover was an alarming 30%, and when the journal American Lawyer published its review of mid-level associates, S & C ranked almost dead last amongst the 163 firms surveyed.
In 2006 Sullivan & Cromwell’s partners made a decision. They would introduce two words into everyday workplace conversation:
Please and thank-you.
Senior partners, instead of striding through the office on their way to their next oh-so-important meeting, began to stop and talk with junior associates. They said hello in elevators. They expressed gratitude for excellent work. They asked politely if associates could stay on late for urgent meetings, instead of expecting that they automatically comply with every demand.
The iceberg began to melt. The next American Lawyer review rated Sullivan & Cromwell first amongst NYC law firm employers.
What’s amazing, of course, was the cost of this change of strategy. Not a dime.
All it cost was the pride of those who had concluded, for whatever reason, that “we don’t have to slow down and be nice to everyone here.”
Carol Kinsey Goman (The Nonverbal Advantage) reports that it takes approximately seven seconds for us to conclude how we feel about someone we have just met. That means the first few moments of an encounter matter more than we know.
“Once someone mentally labels you as ‘likeable’ or ‘unlikeable,’” writes Goman, “everything else you do will be viewed through that filter. If someone likes you, she’ll look for the best in you. If she doesn’t like you, she’ll suspect devious motives in all your actions.”
Dr. Thomas Harrell, a Stanford University professor, has spent years tracking a group of MBAs after graduation. Which of them have done the best in their business careers? Grade point averages seem to have mattered very little. The real predictor of success has been their ability and willingness to enter into conversation with others.
It’s no secret that the early church was a surprising, even shocking, innovation. The ancient world had never before seen small gatherings of people who might otherwise be strangers to one another – except for their common conviction that imitating Jesus was the key to the good life.
Speech was an essential part of creating these “new communities.”
Paul the apostle wrote, for instance, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).
Salt was a preservative, a symbol of purity, and the Mediterranean world’s most important flavor enhancer. Paul was saying, “Go out of your way to talk to other people in such a way that your very words make their day.”
Smiles, handshakes, nods, warm greetings, “please,” “thank-you,” and pausing to give someone our full attention can have an almost miraculous effect.
Unsurprisingly, for every generation and culture, it’s the only decent way to live.
Small talk is a big deal.