Remember the “good ol’ days?” How often did you walk down a hallway of your academic unit and pass a student, faculty or staff member, or administrator and have a short conversation about the new course you were teaching, asked for advice about applying to graduate school, talked about the upcoming faculty-staff-student barbeque, or discussed a pending sporting event between rivals? We have all taken part in these chit-chats, whether distracting or welcoming. Do you remember having these interactions with colleagues and students on our campuses? You may not, as these chit-chats often occurred before the pandemic forced most of us to work from home.
While these seemingly insignificant, occasional, and spontaneous hallway encounters may have taken up a relatively small part of our days, the chit-chat in higher education has suddenly vanished, become elusive, and is nowhere to be found in the back-to-back Zoom or Teams meetings. Chit-chat seems to be an occurrence of the past, a not much thought about lost (p)art of our work-life culture: It has become nearly extinct. Oh, how we now long for chit-chat by the department coffee pot or following a staff meeting.
How do we define chit-chat? Chit-chat, much like small talk, has been viewed as phatic communication, which is free and aimless to connect socially rather than deliver content (Methot et al. 2020). Perhaps, rarely before have we thought about chit-chat functions in the academic environment. Yet, in our work-from-home world we are missing out on our informal touch points with colleagues and students.
So, what are the potential functions of chit-chat in higher education? What could university community members be missing out on in this virtual environment?
Bonding, maintaining trust, and building collegiality
You may bond over discussing the results of the latest college football game, a new online yoga class you tried, a home improvement project, an article you just read, or a conference you recently attended.
Perhaps a professor runs into a student who asks about that looming semester project, article review, or experiment. This brief encounter inspires you to go back to something that has been on your backburner. Chit-chatting about a deadline may show someone you care about their progress in an admonishing and motivating way.
Feeling seen and acknowledged by others
Let’s be honest: We all like to be seen for the color that looks good on us or the new haircut—the pandemic hairdo would be a great topic! Perhaps someone comments on the funny or inspirational saying on the coffee cup you are refilling, or the cup that shows you are taking pride in your identity or cultural background. It puts a smile on our faces. And on the days when you don’t want to be seen, you can hide behind doors or walk in with your headphones.
Exchanging humility and embarrassment
“Well, that was a great win yesterday, wasn’t it?” You didn’t even know it was a big football weekend, so you’re trying to hide your lack of awareness and embarrassment, and feel humility. But, to keep the chit-chat going you might respond with, “Really, was it that big of a win?”
Sending and receiving nonverbal cues
Body language provides cues about how we are feeling and doing, and another person can pick up on our happy or not-so-happy mood and respond empathetically or cheerfully.
Let’s connect and celebrate
Asking about someone’s children, pets, or their hobbies creates connections and puts a smile on people’s faces. Also, when someone seems stressed and tired, asking how things are going can give them permission to vent with a trusted person. When we know that someone has been working hard on a task and we run into them, we can (and should) ask if they ran that half-marathon they were training for or submitted the manuscript you reviewed for them…don’t forget to say, “Congratulations! That’s wonderful!” It’s like a shoulder tap.
Permission to ask “a quick question”
There might be that student, staff member, or colleague who perhaps doesn’t want to ask a question in front of a larger group, however, wants to hear your perspective or advice on an issue. And, as long as your office door is open, they knock and ask, “Do you have time for a quick question?” For us, the answer is undoubtedly, “Yes,” and often this chit-chat evolves into later structured meetings resulting in manuscript submissions, conference presentations, or even new ideas for proposals. And by then, 20 minutes have gone by.
Remembering faces and names is easier
As faculty, staff, or administrators, you may have a hard time remembering students’ names, and if you are like us, it helps to see faces and have personal interactions to remember individuals. In the hallway you may run into the same student several times and ultimately become acquainted. Does this ever happen in the virtual world?
Needless to say, small talk or chit-chatting can have a big impact according to Business Spotlight. Chit-chatting can be uplifting, engaging, and helps with prioritizing and planning next steps, even if it is sometimes perceived as a distraction.
Now here is the thing: How can we recreate or restore the chit-chat component of our work environments in a virtual world? It’s nearly impossible. According to a recent Wallstreet Journal Article some research has shown that we all need these basic interactions, and they could potentially be recreated via Zoom, Teams, or other platforms, but it’s challenging and less “organic” to find the synchrony of in-person communication in our virtual interactions. When did you last start or enter an online meeting early and your colleague also appeared on screen, so you spent the time chit-chatting and catching up? Soon, everyone required at the meeting appears on screen, and suddenly it seems as if the whole neighborhood or university is listening to your conversation—so ends the chit-chat. That’s not the chit-chat that begins and ends organically.
It’s difficult to recreate chit-chat in a virtual setting. We sometimes leave our cameras off because we don’t want our work environment displayed on camera or we don’t feel comfortable on screen. We vanish under the radar, and we have no real chance to meet each other in a neutral environment, like the hallway, where we can be noticed for what we naturally reveal about ourselves and our identities.
In the current virtual and working-from-home environment, we have recognized the values of chit-chat in our workplaces and the important role it plays in the academic ecosystem. Many of us have tried to meet several minutes before a scheduled online meeting, convened for a “virtual coffee” or “virtual happy hour.” Yet, if you’re like us, you’re really looking forward to chit-chatting in the hallway with your colleagues, students, staff, and let’s not forget our janitors, who always add a perspective that helps us practice our humility and appreciation for things we simply take for granted.
Stefanie T. Baier, PhD, is the curriculum development director at the Michigan State Graduate School in charge of the Graduate Teaching Assistant Program.
Henry (Rique) Campa III, PhD, is an associate dean in the graduate school and a professor of wildlife ecology at Michigan State University.
Earwaker, J. (2020, July). Small talk, big impact. Business Spotlight. https://www.business-spotlight.de/business-englisch-lesen/small-talk-big-impact
Methot, J. R., Rosado-Solomon, E. H. (2020) Office chit-chat as a social ritual: The Uplifting Yet Distracting Effect of Daily Small Talk at Work. Academy of Management Journal, 1-55.
Mannering, L. (2019, September 17), The awkward but essential art of office chitchat. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/style/the-awkward-art-of-office-small-talk.html