Mastering the art of small talk might be more of a boon to men than women, a new study suggests.
The report, done by four professors from three different universities in the United States and Germany, found that when a man prefaced a business negotiation with small talk, he not only made a more positive impression, but also got better results. Women, by contrast, seemed to receive little to no upside.
“What we’re finding is that we expect women to engage in these more pro-social, more other-oriented behaviours. So then when they do that, they don’t necessarily receive a boost because it’s kind of an expected baseline behaviour,” says Brooke Shaughnessy, a professor at Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich in Germany and one of the authors of the study.
To come to their conclusions, an experiment was done with 202 participants from an online community. Individuals were asked to assign a score to a fictional character named either Joanna or Andrew from a transcript of a boardroom negotiation. Both characters had two versions with different scenarios, one where they got right down to business and one where they chatted beforehand.
The results found that Joanna’s scores remained relatively similar in either situation, while Andrew’s scores were significantly higher when he engaged in small talk. Further questions posed to participants also found that the subjects would offer more money to Andrew if he chatted first than without. The same benefits did not extend to JoAnna.
“Small talk in no way penalizes women,” Ms. Shaughnessy says. “Small talk is useful and it shouldn’t necessarily be cut out of the tactics at the negotiating table. But I think what we continue to investigate is what women can do above and beyond – if men can put in this small investment and have this outcome, then what can women do ... to leverage their own outcomes?”
Men, she says, are expected to be more outcome-oriented and assertive, so when they dial it back and engage in more relationship-building, they are noticed and praised for it. However, women, who are expected to be more communication-oriented, don’t necessarily benefit the same way.
For women, Ms. Shaughnessy says, one suggestion comes from a 2012 Harvard study, which presents the idea that women can emphasize their relationship to the company in order to create a compelling case during negotiations.
“I think this is a good first step in research, but I there’s more ways that this can be investigated so that women can leverage their own styles and what’s comfortable for them to find other ways to encase ‘the ask’ in an appropriate way,” she said.
The report was presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting in early August and was done by Alexandra Mislin of American University in Washington, Brooke Shaughnessy of Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich and Tanja Hentschel and Claudia Peus of Technical University of Munich.