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Study reveals small talk may be a thing of the past

31st May 2013

One in five UK adults have avoided talking to a stranger for over six months, it emerged yesterday.

A study by mutual healthcare provider benenden health, into the changing trends of Britain’s social habits, found small talk in our own communities is fast becoming a thing of the past as the surge in online communication takes its toll.

Many of the 2,000 studied believed small talk to be unimportant with four in ten describing common actions like talking about the weather or asking if someone had a good journey as pointless or awkward.

A fifth of people now believe the ability to chat face to face with those we’re unfamiliar with is no longer essential.

Paul Keenan, Head of Communications at Benenden Health said: “Is online social networking causing the death of small talk? Our study shows a spiralling decline in face-to-face communication with over a third of people describing friendly small talk as a chore.

“Meanwhile, a significant proportion of people are completely shying away altogether from making small talk or interacting with people they don’t know.

“To an extent, the rapid rise and ever-changing concept of online communication is naturally replacing traditional face-to-face contact. Whilst this is bringing people closer together online and speeding up communication over long distances, the potential effect this may have on social skills whilst out and about should not be underestimated.”

The research, commissioned by benenden health, found one third of people are distinctly uncomfortable having to talk to anyone they don’t already know.

24 per cent of people will only talk to someone they don’t know as a very last resort and only if they need help - that’s after they’ve searched on their phone or called a friend with no success.

The most turned to topics for excruciating filler conversation or pleasantries were the weather, public transport performance and holidays.

The research uncovered a host of throw-away phrases the average person uses on autopilot – ‘thank you’ ‘have a good day’ and ‘nice to see you’ were the phrases people confessed to using most without meaning it.

And a determined one in four workers said they prefer to get straight down to business rather than have to make personal chit-chat.

In fact, half of the 2,000 people studied feel they have a much reduced need to communicate in person because of the amount they can do online.

More than half the study admitted they go to some lengths to try to deter people they don’t know from talking to them – pretending to look at their phone, using a book or putting headphones in were the most common ways of trying to look unapproachable.

Three in ten people said their first thought if someone approached them to talk in the street was usually that the person must be ‘dodgy’ and the same number felt stressed at the thought of talking to someone new.

One third of people say the bulk of their communication is done online or by electronic means rather than face to face.

In fact, 43 per cent stated they are now much more comfortable interacting with people online than they are in person.

The decline in social skills proved clear - one quarter of people actually rely on the internet to reduce their need for face to face interaction.

More than half the study felt they weren’t as strong at talking to people as they should be and, similarly, 53 per cent said they get uncomfortable at talking to someone they don’t know well on the phone or in person.

While 47 per cent were more comfortable in turning to online communities and felt they participate more here than they do in their offline existence.

Also 21 per cent of people said that if they saw a stranger in need of help in their local area, they would not step in and try to help them.

Paul Keenan added: “It is staggering that nearly half of us are becoming more comfortable interacting with people online than in person and this demonstrates both the positive and negative impact of online communities. We’re closer together – especially when friends and family live in different countries – but we shouldn’t lose sight of our social skills in talking ‘over the shop counter’.

“Looking at the positives, despite the evolution of the way we communicate, communities both offline and online are still in abundance. For example, our own community at Benenden Health with a membership of more than 900,000 people across the UK.

“The ethos of mutuality which is central to benenden health firmly rests on individuals coming together to assist others when they need help the most. This is something which we actively promote and believe still has a place in modern society. Benenden health embraces member engagement both offline through our branch network and online through our website and social networks.

“And finally, the fact that ultimately our research still shows that three quarters of people would help a stranger if they saw they were in need is encouraging and demonstrates that there is still a place for community spirit in society.”

 

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