An interactional approach to conceptualising small talk in medical interactions


Address for correspondence: Pamela L. Hudak, Department of Medicine, St. Michael’s Hospital, 30 Bond Street, Toronto, Ontario M5B 1W8, Canada


In medical interactions, it may seem straightforward to identify ‘small talk’ as casual or social talk superfluous to the institutional work of dealing with patients’ medical concerns. Such a broad characterisation is, however, extremely difficult to apply to actual talk, and more specificity is necessary to pursue analyses of how small talk is produced and what it achieves for participants in medical interactions. We offer an approach to delineating a subgenre of small talk called topicalised small talk (TST), derived on the basis of conversation analytically-informed analyses of routine consultations involving orthopaedic surgeons and older patients. TST is a line of talk that is referentially independent from their institutional identities as patients or surgeons, oriented instead to an aspect of the personal biography of one (or both), or to some neutral topic available to interactants in any setting (e.g. weather). Importantly, TST is an achievement of both patient and surgeon in that generation and pursuit of topic is mutually accomplished. In an exploratory but systematic analysis, when this approach was applied to a purposive sample of surgeon-patient interactions, TST was much more prevalent in visits with White than African American patients. Accounts for possible ethnic differences in TST are suggested.