Casual Conversation – Why You Need that Skill

Are we losing the ability to have spontaneous conversations in a world where emailing and texting are quickly becoming the norm? We call each other on the phone far less than we used to and we use digital communication far more. Sherry Turkle sounds the alarm in her book, Alone Together.

Turkle, a social psychologist at MIT, tells us that younger people who text routinely are getting used to being able to plan what they say before they “say” it in a text message. This is affecting the way they process their thoughts and use their brains. When it comes to spontaneous conversation, there is less of an opportunity to practice. As a result, these mental/ brain skills are at risk of declining or possibly atrophying.

women chattingAs a career counselor and executive coach, I am concerned about this trend. Not only is it a problem for people in terms of their abilities to network effectively, the ability to engage in casual and spontaneous conversation matters when it comes to interviewing for a job, communicating effectively on the job, and developing business. Let’s face it, you need to be able to talk with people if you want to land a job and do well in your professional life.

When people look for jobs they need to have the courage to connect using a variety of platforms that include phone calls, email, in-person and interpersonal meetings. They need to understand how to enter a roomful of people and find a way to connect with others. They need to know how to help other people feel comfortable in their presence. So much opportunity in professional life is generated by in-person meetings that the job seeker who is too nervous to meet in person is going to severely limit her chances to learn important information that could open the door to the next job. If a professional is unable to create that valuable new relationship with a central person in the industry, she is less likely to be able to develop business. If he lacks social skills, he will not be able to locate the supportive donor for a nonprofit or be an effective project manager for a start-up.

We know that at least 70% of jobs are found using in-person relationship-building activities, or networking. We know that people who can build good relationships will be better managers, leaders, and developers in central roles in business, law, and non-profit companies. We cannot lose this ability and skill. If anything, we need to do more to nurture and educate the next generation to develop the ability to create authentic interpersonal relationships which are developed in part through casual, spontaneous conversation.

As a parent of three young adults, I know that as they grew up, having family dinners and including them in social events where adults were present helped them to become socially adept. They got comfortable talking with adults and helping guests feel welcome in our home. They learned to share their own personal interests and have conversations about politics, current events, sports, books, movies, and other topics. I would encourage parents to work hard to have family meals and act as role models for casual, spontaneous conversation where there is a give and take and everyone is listened to at the table. And I recommend enforcing this family rule: you have to put down the cell phone and interact with others. I would encourage parents to have reunions, get-togethers, and parties where friends come over and all ages are included in the interactions. And if you yourself are spending a lot of time behind a computer or glued to your cell phone, challenge yourself to get out and go to professional events so that you can practice “casual talk.”

Practicing a skill improves it, and spontaneous conversation is a skill we have to have to be successful in our professional lives.

In my next blog I will write about some of the key strategies and tips that I teach my clients who are nervous about going to professional events or meeting in-person to network for opportunities.