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.

Occupy: a conversation

Sean Hannity calls Occupy Wall Street protesters traitors. A US Marine (in uniform, although perhaps a former marine, not important) standing with the protesters on Wall Street, when asked how he would respond to Hannity says: “I’d tell him to fuck off”. CBC Television interviews Chris Hedges on his view of Occupy Wall Street, and ‘reporter’ Kevin O’Leary asks him if he is a “nut bar”. Hedges tells CBC at the end of the interview that he won’t be interviewed by them again. Thus is the public discourse on matters political framed; few sane people wish to participate, and only the bravest, stupidest, or those being  paid in one way or another do so. Meanwhile, the world faces economic volatility – you have to love that phrase – massive uncertainties about what climate change will bring to pass, horrific images from around the globe of bloodshed and starvation, fears about energy dependency and peak oil, and an ever increasing population of people feeling totally demoralized.

I heard that word ‘demoralized’ used as a descriptive of how the western world – or the 99%, if you like –  is feeling, and it struck a deep chord in me. My feelings of inchoate helplessness have certainly grown in recent months, and deeply thoughtful conversations with friends, and acquaintances, and anybody who  cares to converse in that fashion revealed this common thread. Not despairing, not depressed or filled with rage. People simply struck dumb by the brute ugliness of what leaders, opinion makers, and the media think it worthwhile to speak about while we in the millions are homeless, jobless, and otherwise deeply suffering.

I believe if there is any one thing that Occupy Wall Street could be said to be about, perhaps it is this refusal to accept walking through life demoralized. If the public conversation continues to be hate-filled sound bites, empty rhetoric, or pithy, pointless tweets, the private conversation has never the less been energized and emancipated. The use of the word emancipated is purposeful: it appears that this movement, or shift [insert your characterization of choice here] has indeed engendered a freedom to talk about how things ought to be.

I have no shortage of opinions on how things ought to be, but that is not the point here. Nor are your opinions, my imaginary friend. No, the point is this: that every meaningful conversation – conversation, debate, consideration of alternative views, sharing of experiences, and questioning of other’s experiences – is movement in the direction of how things ought to be. We forget, maybe, that this has been the time-honoured way of democracy right up to the very recent past. How shall we live? How shall we do business? How shall we govern ourselves? Yes, these are huge questions, and yet we have traditionally answered them as a body of one kind or another, as a group, as a community, a society.

It strikes me that how to fit the movement of Occupy Wall Street into the existing framework of bought media, partisan politics, or community cronyism is a backwards take. The pressing, crucial, larger idea is to engineer these systems to facilitate the conversations. Although ‘wake-up’ has been used as a catchphrase by protesters, it might serve as the appropriate metaphor, because there is no denying that something is stirring up the hearts and minds and spirits of people. I do not think it will be possible to go back to the demoralized world of even a few weeks ago. It bears repeating that democracy is what we wish back: the participation of all citizens in shaping and defining how things ought to be.