• Michelle Valigursky

Advice for Your Students: Master the Art of Small Talk

Updated: Oct 29

Real, in-person, face-to-face conversations beats tech-assisted talk every time.

As a post-Baby Boom Generation Xer, my college days didn't include the internet. Hard to believe, I know, but the PC, office fax, and cell phone hadn't yet made their debut and wouldn't for another few years, and FedEx had only just begun delivering packages. Technology was not an ever-present force like it is today. The only networking tools at my disposal were a landline telephone, US postal mail, natural curiosity, and a healthy dose of fearlessness for meeting people.

What does networking mean for students now?

Without decades of small talk experience behind them, students are often shy about starting conversations. Communicating via technology has become a crutch that allows them to delay vital personal engagement with strangers. To fully engage, one must meet face-to-face, exchange pleasantries and small talk, monitor tone of voice and body language, and lay the foundation for a meaningful, long-lasting personal or professional relationship. In an introductory capacity, a telephone call is far more effective than an email, but a visit will be far more effective than a phone call.

We have all grown a bit too dependent on technology, and while our productivity has flourished, the detrimental effects of continuous connection may be more difficult to quantify. Author Joel S. Hirschorn of the Centre for Research on Globalization describes this trend as "technology servitude" and contends that we have become servants to the very devices and technology that lay claim to increased productivity, global outreach, and round-the-clock information.

What does it mean to be social?

For all its benefits, the internet has warped our viewpoint about what it means to be social. To acknowledge the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, Pew Research Center launched the Internet and American Life Project to evaluate the impact connectivity has had on our lives. Now, they conclude, a “declining majority of online adults say the internet has been good for society.”

Granted, long distance updates and cute baby pictures from family and friends are delightful to receive. But is spending in-person time together going by the wayside for a series of numbered-character notes or funny picture posts? I hope not.

In a brave 2011 corporate experiment to transform corporate culture, Europe-based professional services firm Atos instituted Zero Email™ for its 76,000 employees in 52 countries, with a goal to change the way individuals interact, share resources, and achieve business results. The emphasis was placed on personal interaction along with using the correct technology tools to achieve the best results. The initiative required individuals to unlearn certain technology dependencies and management techniques. The result: a positive cultural shift toward email for information sharing only and social collaboration to solve business issues.

This corporate experiment is the perfect example of how technological balance can be achieved with favorable results.

What is the solution to fostering lasting positive connections?

We should use digital tools and social media networks to maintain relationships once they have begun, but, as a first step to building a strong professional network, always seek that human-to-human connection.

To read a more in-depth analysis of the six years of the Atos Zero-Email™ experiment and culture change, view the abstract.

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