Small Talk



I’ve been writing this piece forever, it seems, or maybe more correctly, discussing it with my imaginary friend. Since I have made a point of proclaiming my dislike of small talk and chit chat, it seems natural to want to expand upon this. In any event, the effort to do so has taken me on quite a journey.

An internet search of ‘small talk” will yield mostly predictable results: a lot of why it is essential to your business, how students of English as a second language can benefit from understanding small talk, and of course, rants against small talk. (The Urban dictionary has some exquisitely funny expositions, linked here.) Few of these really get us close to the truth of small talk, however. The language of business is mostly banal and lifeless, a kind of deadened language. Those earnest students of ESL can be forgiven for wondering why we endlessly talk about the weather, but not climate change. Small talk is also linked with gossip – horrors! Also with politicians, the television news, and the public statements of CEOs, all of which are carefully scripted to be innocuous, rehearsed to be delivered smoothly and blandly, and have no substance because they invite no conversation.

“Hello” or “How are you?” or “Hi” are all ritualistic: acknowledgement of person. Body language is about eighty percent of conversation; it is generally the body language of those we acknowledge or respond to that determines whether or not conversation will ensue…Small talk can sometimes be a  bridge to conversation, and sometimes simply more ritualistic exchange. Body language can be a more direct way of getting to conversation: think of saying “hello” and smiling broadly at the same time: this is a very clear indication. Note though, that it is not perceived as an invitation if the smile seems insincere – body language is largely below consciousness, but humans do astoundingly well at distinguishing between real, unfeigned interest and mechanical greetings. Put another way, when we look at people with interest and anticipation of a conversation, conversation often happens.

We aren’t yet finished with small talk, though. Think of flirting – yes, flirting, we pretty much all do it. If we were to analyze the content of that enjoyable little flirtation – at the coffee shop, say – it would seem that the words, the actual content, were nothing but…small talk… Though it was so delightful! And left us feeling, well, a little happier for an encounter with a pleasant someone or other. Romantic flirtation is probably even less conducive to word analysis, for of course, voice and intonation, a myriad of physical gestures, long looks, and even dilated pupils all play a role in people flirting romantically But were we to replay the words outside of that context, we would likely be bemused at what actually occurred. How did so much of substance and import get communicated? We must also consider small talk in the context of the internet and technology: chat, texting, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and on and on – much of what we communicate through the technology becomes shorter and shorter bits of text. And yet, we manage to infuse it with meaning, convey flirtation and love, bridge time and distance, and transcend social, geographical, political limits and all manner of things that might be perceived as barriers in non-cyberspace.I believe my musings on small talk have brought me to this: it is a necessary piece of human social interaction, in ways that I have perhaps not considered before. There is much that goes unsaid in most conversations, except perhaps the most intimate and prolonged, and what one says is always interpreted in light of the mind and experiences and circumstances of the hearer. Certainly, one need only think of tweets that have resonated around the world to recognize that even one hundred and forty characters can change the world…

I will paraphrase the words here of Theodore Zeldin, Oxford University historian, and his ideas on fostering conversation. That people are interesting and ought to be sought out. To think, while you are speaking. To use conversation to create courage in the face of failure. To resist the cynicism that is the hallmark of  our culture. To change the purpose of conversation from personal advancement or denoting ones’ respectability to remaking our world. These words and ideas of Zeldin’s are very stirring, but it seems to me that if we think of them as only to be practised during ‘high’ conversation, that we are maybe missing the point. It seems to me that they apply in even the most banal of times and circumstance, and that maybe, this is where the potential to ‘remake our world’ is greatest.

There is much more to be thought about than I have written here, of course, but never the less I hope you will not find it small talk. Feel free to tweet your thoughts, or to leave a comment, but most of all, I hope that maybe you will discover that some small interaction of yours has indeed, helped remake our world.

2 comments on “Small Talk

  1. I always thought I was a freak because I didn’t take easily to small talk. I literally feel like my legs are folding underneath me to have to ‘make polite conversation.’
    Yet over the years, I’ve learned to be a better listener. I’ve also mastered how best to gracefully bow out of meaningless interchanges.
    Cheers, VL.


    • I’m told I’m good at small talk, which has never seemed like much of a compliment…! But, Bela, how I value these words you think to leave for me. Perhaps it is because you are listening 🙂


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