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Making a positive (or negative) first impression with small talk

Hillary J.D. Wiener (Department of Marketing, University at Albany, Albany, New York, USA)
Karen E. Flaherty (Department of Marketing, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA)
Joshua Wiener (Department of Marketing, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA)

European Journal of Marketing

ISSN: 0309-0566

Article publication date: 17 October 2022

Issue publication date: 30 November 2022




This paper aims to show that whether new customers respond well or poorly to small talk at the beginning of a service encounter depends on their relationship orientation, i.e. how exchange or communally oriented they are. The authors provide service providers with tactics to identify first-time customers’ relationship orientation or set customers’ small talk expectations and thus help them use small talk more effectively.


The authors examine the effect of small talk and relationship orientation on customer intentions to use a service provider in three experiments and one cross-sectional survey. The scenario-based experiments show causality and the effect in online and in-person scenarios. The survey replicates the effect among current customers of a small business.


Communally oriented customers respond positively to small talk, but exchange-oriented customers respond negatively to it. Mediation analyses reveal this occurs because small talk differentially leads to initial feelings of rapport and impatience for people high (versus low) in relationship orientation.

Practical implications

Service providers should consider customers’ relationship orientation before starting a conversation with small talk. The authors find providers can identify exchange-oriented customers by their choice of meeting format (in-person v. video chat). Managers can also use marketing materials to attract customers with a specific relationship orientation or to set customer expectations for small talk in the interaction.


Prior research has largely shown benefits to small talk, but the authors show significant downsides for some customers and to the best of the authors’ knowledge are the first to show process evidence of why these drawbacks occur.



The authors would like to thank Meg Horan and Jai Yoga School for facilitating the survey and the review team for their helpful feedback.


Wiener, H.J.D., Flaherty, K.E. and Wiener, J. (2022), "Making a positive (or negative) first impression with small talk", European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 56 No. 12, pp. 3516-3544.



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