Remember the “good ol’ days?” How often did you walk down a hallway of your academic unit and pass a student, faculty or staff member, or administrator and have a short conversation about the new course you were teaching, asked for advice about applying to graduate school, talked about the upcoming faculty-staff-student barbeque, or discussed a pending sporting event between rivals? We have all taken part in these chit-chats, whether distracting or welcoming. Do you remember having these interactions with colleagues and students on our campuses? You may not, as these chit-chats often occurred before the pandemic forced most of us to work from home.
While these seemingly insignificant, occasional, and spontaneous hallway encounters may have taken up a relatively small part of our days, the chit-chat in higher education has suddenly vanished, become elusive, and is nowhere to be found in the back-to-back Zoom or Teams meetings. Chit-chat seems to be an occurrence of the past, a not much thought about lost (p)art of our work-life culture: It has become nearly extinct. Oh, how we now long for chit-chat by the department coffee pot or following a staff meeting.
How do we define chit-chat? Chit-chat, much like small talk, has been viewed as phatic communication, which is free and aimless to connect socially rather than deliver content (Methot et al. 2020). Perhaps, rarely before have we thought about chit-chat functions in the academic environment. Yet, in our work-from-home world we are missing out on our informal touch points with colleagues and students.
So, what are the potential functions of chit-chat in higher education? What could university community members be missing out on in this virtual environment?