So do we have to consciously deal with all of the complexity we reviewed in the previous segment every time we talk with someone? No – because we are social creatures, and our social learning provides a simple way to avoid dealing with all of the complexities of talking on a daily basis.
We have learned how to talk as members of our society – not just as individuals in particular relationships. And our society – like all others – has created a simple way of talking that gets us through most of our daily conversations without concern for individual backgrounds. We use it automatically. I call it C.O.N.N.E.C.T. talk. Each letter in the word connect stands for something that I will explain momentarily.
Words simply come out of our mouths in response to a situation or another person's words. And unless the situation is threatening or confusing, we respond automatically.
Like all of our habits…walking being the most obvious…years of imitating others and practice are involved. As babies, we started by making random sounds which, in response to our parents' reactions, slowly but surely were shaped into something that sounded like words. By the time we were three or four, we could string these together into what sounded like sentences, and we were on our way.
We have always assumed that, as adults, we use our conscious mind to speak. We don't. If we did, our talk would sound hesitant, stilted, and totally unnatural. This is not the way we get through everyday situations sounding like a normal speaker. To do that, we use a far more powerful mind – our adaptive unconscious – which I call our Elephant mind, to evoke its size and power.
The Elephant mind rises from the lower middle part of our brain and is home to the huge storage system of our long-term memory circuits and, perhaps most importantly, the limbic system. This system instantly evaluates everything coming in through our sensory systems – mostly our eyes and ears – in terms of positive or negative emotions. It assembles the appropriate response and pushes our conscious mind to speak. AND most importantly, it does this instantly.
The adaptive unconscious mind's ability to understand the nature of talk emerges as children are raised while their mothers are talking.
From the earliest moments of the child's life, mothers speak constantly – something social scientists call "motherese." This is the "sing-songy" form of speech that every mother uses to describe – the baby itself, and everything that's going on around it – to the baby at the moment. This talk seems to flow naturally, and the more she talks, the better it is for the baby.
A detailed study of talkative mothers showed that they are doing two critical things – they're reinforcing the fundamental back-and-forth, cooperative structure of everyday talk in their babies' minds, and they're connecting the baby's positive emotional reactions to everyday talk, because the more elaborate their motherese, the more positive it is – a ratio of 6 encouragements for every prohibition per hour of talk for the chattiest moms.
In this connective situation, the child develops what psychologist John Bowlby has called a positive attachment with its caregiver. Generally speaking, about 60% of the North American population has personalities that develop out of secure connections built on persistently attentive and loving connections. These children hear millions more positive than negative words from parents and develop what Bowlby calls a secure attachment style. This is a combination of a positive sense of self-worth and a positive view of others. And they speak through these positive views for the rest of their lives.
They use a form of talk that is the basis for our social order. I call it C.O.N.N.E.C.T. talk. It's a critical ritual that is shared by most of the population. It not only reinforces the orderly flow of everyday life but also allows us not to have to focus on the unique – and sometimes difficult – personal histories of the people we're talking with.
The first letter, "C," represents courtesy rituals. When our adaptive unconscious mind "reads" the situation as one where the simple connection with another is all that's required, we speak with deeply learned greetings, spoken with politeness, patience, and friendly kindness. This permits the other's adaptive unconscious to "O" – openly express those in return and continue with the small talk of self-disclosure.
Essentially, "Hi, how're ya doing? Encourages a smile and a "Fine, thanks. How are you?" This instant exchange indicates that "N" – no negative judgment has happened, and an organ in the adaptive unconscious – the hypothalamus – generates a neuropeptide called oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a "feel good" drug for our adaptive unconscious and is the neural encouragement to keep talking – which the person being met does by sharing "N" narratives – small stories. This act encourages story-telling in the other, and "E" emotional reciprocity begins. It is essentially a "C" – collaborative process that begins to build "T" trust not only in this moment but for the future.
Notice that individual personalities and backgrounds are not at stake here. Just a deeply learned exchange of words and emotions that might signal the beginning of a new relationship or the positive reinforcement of an old relationship but always signals the re-creation of an essential moment of connection that allows all social life to exist. Consider the background power of Connect talk in this small story:
Our Mom is off to work. Her husband is staying home today to take care of their 3-year-old daughter. She picks her up on the way to the door and gives her a deep hug, and tells her in a warm voice that she'll miss her but that she'll be home by 5. She puts her down, gives her husband a kiss and a hug, wishes him a great day, and heads out the door.
They live in a small town just outside of the city, and she is walking to the commuter train station just off the main street. As she's passing a neighbor's house, she gives the elderly man sitting on the porch a smile and a small wave. He returns the gestures. Another block later, she runs across a woman struggling with several bags while she's trying to open the trunk of her car with one hand. She stops and offers to hold the bags and allows the woman to instantly gets her trunk open. The woman takes back the bags with profuse thanks to this pleasant, passing stranger.
As our working mom turns onto the main street, she decides to stop into the local convenience store for a moment. She is welcomed with a smile by the owner. She picks up a pack of gum and pays for it with an exchange of "thank you's" and more smiles.
She arrives at the station as the train is pulling in. People line up to get on in an orderly fashion and, as she enters the car, she sees that most people are buried in their phones. She excuses herself as she edges by a passenger seated nearby so she can sit by the window. She doesn't take out her phone because the scenery on this ride is beautiful and, she wants to take it all in before she gets to the steel and concrete heart of the city.
When she finally gets to work and walks into the office, she is met with more smiles and "Hi's" – gestures of connection from her fellow workers. Moreover, throughout the day, when she needs to discuss issues with them, she is met with similar positively engaging looks and tones of voice.
This is a community and work-life driven by Connect talk.
Connect talk is the basis of social order, but, of course, it doesn't prevent the three D's – difference disagreement, disorder – from happening. Most importantly, however, it allows us to get through most of our daily contacts with others without having to think about them.
So, of course, make small talk whenever you can. I know that many people think of it as a waste of time. It's not. It's the basis of our relationships with other people in both our public and our personal lives.
Its power is also shown in what I call "commiserative connection" – the accepting look we have when others are describing a difficult moment in their lives to us; or the sad connective look and touch we have for loved ones or friends when facing the death of a family member or a friend. No matter what we need from others, for them to even consider giving it to us, they need to feel that we are connected to them. This also includes difficult moments where I am going to show you a very powerful form of problem-solving talk that allows you to stay connected even in the midst of angry disagreement. Connect talk is not only about how our lives began, but it allows us to be seen as normal speakers and decent human beings throughout those lives.