Humans Aren’t the Only Species That Suffer Through Small Talk

Photo: Tibor Bognar/Corbis

Small talk — that filler chatter on the weather, sports, and Ugh, it’s Monday again — is a pretty common human bonding mechanism. It is often annoying, true. And yet researchers argue that we do it on elevators and with our usual coffee provider not so much because we feel obligated to, but because of the human connection it helps foster. As it turns out, we’re not the only species engaging in awkward small talk – primates do, too, argues a study on lemur societies, recently published in Animal Behaviour.

Lemurs have “vocal exchanges” when they’re out foraging for food or traveling — calls that have, until now, confounded researchers for their purpose. But these scientists, all from Princeton University, followed a group of lemurs and found that when the primates would call out, only those that had established some level of familiarity with the calling lemur would answer back.

In a way, these vocalizations could be considered the lemur version of human small talk, in that they are little noises that don’t provide much information — but they do help reinforce the animals’ social bonds. The researchers think that there could be something here that was passed from primates to humans. Perhaps, as groups got larger, grooming ceased to be an efficient method for establishing rapport, and calling out some small talk was a way to ensure friends and family that we were thinking of them and, therefore, cared about them.

Put another way, much like with the human version of small talk, these vocalizations help foster a lemur-to-lemur connection. “Talking is a social lubricant, not necessarily done to convey information, but to establish familiarity,” Ipek Kulahci, lead author of the paper, said in a press release. “I think these vocalizations are equivalent to the chitchat that we do. People think that conversations are like exchanging mini-lectures full of information. But most of the time we have conversations and forget them when we’re done because they’re performing a purely social function.”

Lemurs Suffer Through Small Talk, Too