Making small talk can bring worthwhile change

Feature Small Talk Panel

Like a deer caught in the headlights, Linda Kaplan Thaler believes human beings can become so paralyzed with fear when faced with a big problem that we often choose the least-resistance option of doing nothing because such problems seem insurmountable.

The answer, of course, is to start chipping away and solve the smaller, more manageable problems along the way, and she’s not the first person to recommend this approach for societies and business organizations alike. In her June 2 IB Presents presentation, sponsored by Edgewood College and EZ Office Products, she cited a legendary mathematician who died 36 years ago.

George Pólya is a famous mathematician who said that the biggest problem facing, not just math but facing humanity, is trying to solve problems that do feel insurmountable,” Kaplan Thaler states. “He said, ‘But if you can unpack them into smaller problems, then you can eventually solve the big one.’”

In Kaplan Thaler’s view, a great example of this is the Rainbow Bridge across Niagara Falls. In the early 1900s, public officials wanted to build a suspension bridge over Niagara Falls to connect Canada and the United States because they correctly believed the spectacular site would be a money-making tourist destination. To start the process, they had to get a steel cable across from the United States to Canada and they couldn’t figure out how to do it.

People still weren’t flying planes, and they couldn’t send a boat with it because of the danger posed by the falls, and they were stymied. For months, engineers tried to come up with a solution, and at one point were ready to abandon the idea. That’s when a resident of nearby Buffalo, who was not an engineer, made a small-ball suggestion to connect the two countries with something easier.

That something easier turned out to be a string. How? As part of a kite-flying contest. Any little boy or girl who got their kite across to Canada would get $10, and that not-so-small sum (back then) was awarded to a little boy named Horace. Once that string connected the two countries, they connected the string to a bigger string, and then to a rope, and eventually to a steel cable. Within a couple of years, the Rainbow Bridge was built across Niagara Falls, arguably one of the world’s most profitable destinations for tourists, especially honeymooners.

“It all exists because someone told a bunch of kids to go fly a kite,” Kaplan Thaler marvels.

No butts about it

Another problem that seemed insurmountable occurred worldwide, especially in Europe, as people were littering with cigarette butts. Public health officials couldn’t figure out how to get people to throw their butts in the garbage. They tried levying fines, which didn’t help. They tried putting signage everywhere, which didn’t help. They tried putting out more garbage pails and baskets, but that didn’t work.

“And finally, they said, ‘Maybe there is a much simpler solution. Maybe instead of making people feel like what they do is nothing when they throw butts away, what if we told them that it really mattered where they threw it?’” Kaplan Thaler notes. “And some very enterprising guy came up with this idea: Vote with Your Butt.”

It turned out to be a real inside-the-box solution, and while it was also a somewhat crude way to conduct public polling, it worked. Ballot bins were set up and people were asked fun questions. Should pineapple go on pizza? Could England win the Rugby Cup? What is the best COVID Christmas movie — Home Alone or The Grinch? Smokers would cast votes by putting their cigarette butts in the bin with their preferred answer, and the answer above the bin with the highest pile of butts would win.

“It became so successful that it’s being used all around the world now, and that entrepreneur [from the social enterprise site Hubbub] is making millions,” Kaplan Thaler notes.

In her view, small-talk possibilities are endless because there are more ideas that have not been thought of than have been thought of. Unfortunately, small talk has been disappearing, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is vitally important to the ideation process.

“Those moments when you interact with people are really important, especially strangers or clients or customers,” Kaplan Thaler notes. “Organizational psychologists will tell you that the most important thing about small talk is that it may seem that you are just shooting the breeze, yet subconsciously you just want to try to find a connection.”

Sometimes, it’s a life-saving connection. During IB Presents, Kaplan Thaler recounted the story of two women — Sandy, a barista at a Starbucks in Tacoma, Washington, and Anna Marie, a daily customer at that very same Starbucks who was about Sandy’s age. Unlike most of Sandy’s conversations with customers, which were strictly transactional, Anna Marie would make small talk, find out how Sandy was doing, and basically exchange pleasantries.

“Well, one day Anna Marie walked in, and she looked terrible, and she also looked like she had been crying. Sandy normally would not have said anything, but here was a woman who was always open to making small talk and was very friendly, so she said to her, ‘What’s wrong?’ And Anna Marie broke down in tears and said, ‘I have kidney failure, and I just recently found out that nobody in my family is a blood match. I don’t know how much longer I have [to live].’”

Sandy reached across the table, took Anna Marie’s her hand, and in a remarkably unselfish act of kindness to someone she knew only in passing, offered to take a test for her. As luck would have it, Sandy was a perfect blood match and donated one of her kidneys. Such is the value of small talk.

“So, although the next time you meet somebody on a train or plane and you’re chatting them up, they may not offer you one of their vital, life-saving organs, but take the time to talk to them because they might give you some great advice in your business and even in your life.”

Such examples demonstrate that we do not have to go the extra mile to improve the bottom line, says Kaplan Thaler, whose original advertising agency, the Kaplan Thaler Group, grew to $1 billion in billings. “The research that we saw, and we conducted, was amazing in that usually it wasn’t the big things, it was the little things that made a difference.”

Another case in point is well-known New York restaurateur Daniel Meyer, who Kaplan Thaler got to know through chit-chat. One day she decided to go beyond small talk and ask Meyer, founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group — the Big Apple’s version of Food Fight — for an interview. His restaurants are successful in part because he’s a big believer in going the extra inch, and Kaplan Thaler wanted to talk to him more in-depth.

He told her that great food and ambiance are important, but so are the little things that many competitors don’t do. “He said, ‘A simple thing like when somebody calls and makes a reservation. It’s a pretty expensive restaurant, so the first thing we’ll ask is what’s the occasion? And more often than not, there is one. For example, somebody says well, my husband and I are going to be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. Oh, that’s good to know, and all those people who are taking those calls are writing those things down, and when that couple comes into the restaurant, they open the menu and the first thing they see is Happy Anniversary, Helen and George.”

Perhaps Meyer will throw in a free dessert, but just that little bit of thoughtfulness usually secures him a customer for life. Other than the price of the paper the anniversary greetings were printed on, and the cost of a dessert, it isn’t a terribly expensive way to gain customer loyalty.

The Power of Nice

One of the books Kaplan Thaler wrote with former business partner Robin Koval is titled The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness. As she explains, making human connections is not really about networking, it’s about nice-working because when you do something nice for somebody, you leave an imprint. “That imprint is like a seed, and it will grow in amazing kinds of ways.”

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