Can You Make Big Money With Small Talk?

  • By Kathryn Drury Wagner, Career Contessa
  • March 26, 2015

small talk at work

"Sure is some cold weather we’re having…"

"Did you catch the game last night?"

"Going to the staff holiday party?"

Some people love to shoot the breeze, others hate it, but these seemingly innocuous conversations aren’t at all optional. Small talk is important social glue, especially in business, where options for human connection are fairly limited. At home, there’s cuddling, family jokes, heart-to-hearts, sex… none of that seems to work well at work, unless you’re in the Senate. But here’s the weird thing about small talk: It helps men’s careers more than women’s.

That was the finding from a study presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, where 10,000 organizational behavior junkies get together to discuss corporate strategies, human resources and other management-related topics. And, presumably, engage in lots of small talk. The study was titled, “Should We Chit-Chat? Benefits of Small Talk for Male but not Female Negotiators” and was a joint project from American University, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and Technische Universität München.

The researchers looked at the role of small talk in the context of negotiation. Subjects were asked to rate a "JoAnna" or "Andrew" who either uses or does not bother with pleasantries at the beginning of a conversation, an imaginary scenario regarding a land purchase. Whether she had jumped right into business, or first started talking about restaurants in town and a local sports team, JoAnna received the same score of likeability and cooperativeness. But Andrew was rated much higher, considered more likeable and willing to compromise, if he’d first busted out the small talk.

Then the researchers looked at how much study participants were willing to pay Andrew and JoAnna for this land, and found that JoAnna would get $10,090 if she had engaged in gab, and $10,195 if she had not. For Andrew, it was $10,243 if he’d skipped the small talk, and $10,872 if he’d prattled on a bit.

The researchers wrote, “engaging in small talk enhanced perceptions of communality, liking and satisfaction with the relationship in men but not women. Men benefited from using small talk by receiving more favorable final offers when they engaged in small talk than when they did not.” Why the disparity? Differing stereotypes and expectations, the researchers say. Men are stereotyped as less communicative and sociable, so they profit more when they show communal behavior. Women are expected to be more sociable in general, so they just don’t get the brownie points.

What can you take away from this, if you’re in a position where you need to negotiate? No one suggests skipping small talk entirely, but the researchers did note that women would do well to find other ways to boost the impression they are making. Here are some pointers:

Better Bull Negotiation Tactics

  • You’ll be a more confident negotiator if you do it frequently, so take any opportunity, no matter how small, to haggle.
  • Be a hyper-researcher. The person who knows more has the upper hand in a negotiation; relentlessly study your competitor or client before you go in to talk with them.
  • Treat negotiating as an art form. Professional negotiators use a whole slew of techniques, so learn a few, like “avoiding making the first offer” or how to stage a blowup.

Schmooze Like a Pro

  • Avoid politics, religion, Obamacare or any other possibly inflammatory subjects.
  • Tell a good story. Like that time you were almost hit by a cab but slid across the hood instead, or saw a grizzly bear in Alaska. Keep it light and don’t put yourself down.
  • Tap into pop culture, talking about the latest bestseller or movie.
  • Ask about their families, hobbies, vacations and sports teams.

This article originally appeared on CareerContessa.com and is reprinted by permission from CareerContessa.com, ©2014 Career Contessa. All rights reserved.

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