The big power of small talk: How the absence of social interactions impacts mental health

While working from home does have numerous benefits like better work/life balance and time to pursue passion projects, studies have showed its downside too



By Anu Prabhakar

Published: Sat 21 Jan 2023, 12:41 AM

Last updated: Sat 21 Jan 2023, 1:34 PM

We have crossed the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, but online forums like Reddit continue to be flooded with messages asking for help. ‘If you work from home and live alone,’ reads one post, ‘how are you handling/coping with loneliness or feeling disconnected?’ The post, which is nearly a year old, attracted 100 comments with people offering solutions like working from home with a friend and enrolling for in-person group classes.

Offline, Navya (full name withheld on request) too was trying to get used to working from home, for an IT firm. While it allows her the flexibility to focus on her two children, she misses having spontaneous interactions with the outside world. “You could have a one-minute chat with a colleague while on your way to the washroom or even strike up a conversation with someone who works in your office building, while waiting for the bus together. We end up missing such small interactions which actually serve as important distractions. And when you work from home, you rarely call up your colleagues just to chat.”

She is, by no means, alone — the pandemic has, after all, changed the way we live. WFH job opportunities have been on the rise — an article in Arabian Business, which discussed the findings of Salary Guide and Hiring Insights 2023 for the UAE released by Michael Page, reported that ‘66 per cent of respondents surveyed are looking for positions with an element of remote working integrated into their role’. And while working from home does have numerous benefits like better work/life balance and time to pursue passion projects, studies have showed its downside too. For instance, a Forbes article last year, while discussing the findings of a survey by companies ServiceNow and ThoughtLab and speaking to experts, explained that ‘many remote and hybrid employees are struggling with profound stress and isolation’ and that ‘it’s harder to have high-quality interactions digitally’.

The importance of such fleeting, but meaningful, interactions that workers like Navya miss, called ‘small talk’, has been researched as well. A 2022 study titled ‘Decreased Frequency of Small Talk Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic Has Deteriorated Mental Health: Findings From Longitudinal Surveys of Middle-Aged and Older People in Japan’, which was published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health has, as the title suggests, found that ‘people who felt their small talk frequency decreased during the pandemic compared with the pre-pandemic period had lower psychological well-being and greater loneliness than those who did not’. The study, which analysed members of a Japanese social networking service, further stated that ‘although small talk is not necessarily mandatory in everyday life, it has an important role such as developing rapport, deepening interpersonal trust and enriching one’s life’.

Additionally, a 2013 article in Scientific American, which looked at a study whose findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, reported that the study suggests that ‘even brief social contact that does not involve a close emotional bond — such as small talk with a neighbour or a bus driver — could extend a person’s life’.

Coping by talking

Dr. Aida Suhaimi, Clinical Psychologist at the Medcare Medical Centre, Jumeirah, describes ‘small talk’ as ‘small, simple, short, and trivial conversations you would have with people who you may see occasionally, are not close to or even strangers. “Despite it being “small”, it takes up almost 1/3 of an adult speech in a day,” she adds.

Dr K Arun Kumar, specialist psychiatrist at Aster Clinic Jubilee Medical Complex, Bur Dubai, explains the importance of small talk as a coping strategy by citing the example of an elderly couple who had approached him for help. “They used to interact with the domestic worker, the delivery man, the watchman and others daily. But during Covid-19, the husband slipped into severe depression, which continued even as people resumed their normal routine. Since they were older, they continued to follow the rules of social distancing, so the domestic worker stopped coming to their house and they stopped stepping out as well.”

“The only difference between their previous and current lifestyles was that these brief interactions had stopped completely,” he continues. “So, we made some lifestyle modifications — for instance, we made sure that he went to the grocery, so that he could interact with people there while shopping. And once he got into that pattern of life, he started improving.”

The lockdown, he continues, was hardest on those who realised just how much small talk helped them to deal with the daily pressures of life. “For instance, a couple who are in the middle of a fight will get distracted when they go for work, talk to colleagues, have coffee or talk to the person sitting next to them on the bus. By the time they return home, they are in a relaxed state of mind.”

“When people come to me for anxiety and depression, I find that they have been having symptoms even before, but they didn’t realise it because of their frequent interactions with the outside world,” he adds.

Dr Suhaimi adds that even though such ‘micro-conversations’ do not have the same benefits as the long-lasting, decades-old relationships that we all enjoy with our closest ones, they still help people to connect. “There is this misconception that engaging in small talk is ‘less pleasant’ than being alone. But relatively speaking, it is actually more beneficial to make that connection, even though the topics could be superficial and trivial.”

So, for instance, people who routinely avoid small talk at the workplace and prefer to self-isolate by wearing headphones while working, avoiding eye contact in hallways or arriving just in time for events or meetings may not experience a sense of belonging at their workplace. “They feel disconnected from their surroundings and colleagues, thus leading to a sense of loneliness in spite of being surrounded by people. In a way, they dismiss their innate needs for social connection and engagement,” she points out. “Feeling socially connected increases happiness and wellbeing, while feeling disconnected and disengaged contributes to depression and mental illness.” And staying connected to colleagues through meetings on platforms like Zoom and Google Meet is not the perfect solution either. “Meetings begin and end at a certain time and are strictly about work, and it gives no space for small talk,” she adds.

However, both Dr Suhaimi and Dr Arun Kumar, emphasise that conditions apply. “Some people, due to their personality traits, prefer solitude and were largely fine during the lockdown, so we don’t force them to have such conversations,” says Dr Kumar. To this, Dr Suhaimi adds that those who face persistent distress may see small talk as something that is pointless, lacks substance or is distracting. “Some may see it as draining and anxiety-provoking, so there is no reason for them to do it.”

Staying socially engaged

‘Feeling so depressed working from home’ reads the title of yet another post on Reddit. How do you guys keep yourself entertained and maintain work/life balance, the writer asks in the message.

We reach out to the writer, who prefers to remain anonymous. The 24-year-old Dubai resident and content producer says that he posted the query during the lockdown and that he ended up working from home for a year. He realised he missed stepping out and interacting with people, even though he was in touch with his closest friends. “I love watching the world go by, watching humans being human in public space,” he says. “I love cycling through restaurants and communities and seeing people just having a good time.” He survived by designating spaces in his house for certain activities. “The living room and dining table were for office work, the bedroom for working on my passion projects like music, and the corner of the living room for gaming and socialising with my best friends online,” he explains, adding that he is now back at the office.

There are other ways to remain socially engaged, too. Dr Suhaimi suggests looking up topics that could help one to initiate a conversation — like the weather, or sports. “The more you avoid it, the less confident you will be to engage and be connected… thus, rather than avoiding small talk, make a conscious effort to come out of your comfort zone and reconnect with people.”

Dr Arun Kumar suggests taking frequent breaks, every 45 minutes, from work. “We encourage them to make phone calls to colleagues and friends and talk about anything but work. Although the absence of small talk alone cannot lead to depression, we encourage those with symptoms of depression to interact with people instead of remaining isolated. But remember, small talk alone won’t help you fix anything. If you do have symptoms of a mental illness or feel like you need professional help, you have to reach out for treatment.”

Anu Prabhakar is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist (Instagram: @melodrama.queen)


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