The importance of small talk and listening skills for retired men

May 15, 2023
Source: Getty

Let’s chat about talking.

More specifically, let’s talk about listening and how it helps you to ask better questions and engage in more meaningful conversations.

I’ve worked for more than 40 years as a journalist, so it’s kind of been my life’s work to ask questions. I’m stunned by how many recently retired men I meet in social situations who just don’t engage in any sort of small talk.

Is it because they are just not interested in other people? Are they worried someone might ask them a difficult question? Or are they just rude? It’s hard to tell.

And if you can’t have a conversation about simple things – like the weather and football – how do you ever possibly discuss your deeper personal feelings with a mate, your kids, or your partner?

Retirement is life-changing for most men.

It is like having to start over again. Having to establish your new identity.

For some, stopping work means that you go from being the most important person in the room where everyone hangs on every word you say, to being just one of 20 people in the room.

For some people, their careers have to a large point defined who they are. Their position in life has gotten them better seats on planes, more attention in restaurants, and invites to lunches and dinners and other social events.

Once you finish work though – almost overnight – you stop being that person. You now are one of two million Australian men who define their existence as being “retired”.  

I played golf with a 62-year-old former Chief Executive Officer the other day. He had been an important figure in his industry. I’d seen his name in the newspapers and I’d even seen him interviewed on TV a few times.

By the end of the 18 holes, I knew where he grew up; the places he had lived; how many children he had; how many times he’d been married; and where he was going on his next holiday.

He didn’t ask me a single question about my favourite subject – which is me. Only joking.

And then as we drove our buggies to the clubhouse he asked hopefully: Are you coming in for a drink?

I hastily made an excuse and went home. I’d already spent four-and-a-half hours carrying the conversation and didn’t fancy another 45 minutes of me trying to drag even more information from him.

I think honing the art of small talk is more important than anything else for 60-plus-year-old men who have just retired from a busy, stimulating, working life.

For some, retirement is like a light being switched off where you suddenly find yourself alone in a dark room filled with your own thoughts, and questions about your very existence.

In the space of a really short time, you go from engaging in challenging conversations and solving complicated problems to helping to decide whether it’s salmon or steak for dinner on Tuesday night.

It’s confronting, to say the least.

It is forcing men to re-evaluate who they are? What do they really believe in? And what kind of person do they want to be for the final quarter of their lives?

Small talk is hard work – especially if you are one trying to drive the conversation.

But what chance do young men today have of getting better at the art of conversation when they spend hours upon hours with their eyes glued to a screen?

A 2021 survey found that on average Generation Z spends 7.3 hours a day on a screen. Millennials spend 6.7 hours; Generation X almost 6 hours; Baby Boomers 2.9 hours and the Silent Generation (those born between 1928 and 1945) spends about 2.8 hours a day staring at a screen.

The phone has also turned into a safe haven for men who don’t talk – or want to avoid it.

If you grab your phone in a social situation and start scrolling through social media you don’t have to talk. You can avoid all eye contact; you suddenly look busy; and those awkward silences don’t matter because you are busy watching TikTok videos of golfers hitting epic shots.

Decades of research show that humans are the number one species in the animal kingdom when it comes to social intelligence. The same research also shows that making social connections is an essential ingredient when it comes to improving your happiness.

So, if having a bit of chitchat makes you feel better, why are so many of us so afraid of it?

Women are clearly better at small talk (and deep and meaningful conversations) than men.

The Female Brain, a book by Louann Brizendine published in 2006, suggests that that is the case because females have 10 per cent more brain cells than males in a part of the brain that’s called the plenum temporal. That area of the brain allows us to perceive and process language.

It doesn’t stop there though.

Women on average can speak at a speed of 250 words per minute (30 per cent more than men) and have 10 per cent more neurons that are devoted to emotions and memories.

The same research shows that women are better at sensing what people are feeling.

It’s more than that though. Women listen. And listening is the thing men my age need to get better at.

If you listen, and really concentrate on what someone is saying, you learn things. And as a result, you can ask better questions, provoke more meaningful conversations, and perhaps even expand your group of mates.

My dad always told me that you learn much more by listening, than you do by speaking. Roy John Crisp never did say much, but he was a very wise man.

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