Okay, let’s be clear on what we’re talking about here. Small talk is ever so polite conversation about unimportant, trivial, or uncontroversial topics, engaged in usually by people who have just met, or who don’t know each other well, typically at a social gathering. This chitchat can feel like it’s done purely for its own sake, because, and I quote: ‘Small talk is an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed’.
And therefore it can feel totally pointless, highly superficial, bore you rigid, make you tune out, or feel uncomfortable and despairing because you’re no good at it, or because you simply hate it, and want to get away from it to regain your sanity or your well being. And as for certain excruciating questions, well I’ll get to these shortly. And there is no doubt small talk is a learned skill. Now, I was pretty useless at it as a young woman at around the age of 20. I got a job in a science lab at this time, where I was greeted with a formal ‘Good Morning’, when I arrived. No doubt I muttered some kind of reply, but it didn’t sit right with me, in fact it got to me. Why the formality? Wasn’t a hello enough? I can’t believe I actually asked my father (who wasn’t exactly skilled at it himself) why they were saying ‘good morning’? After a few hummings and harrings, he said, ‘Well, it’s a way of acknowledging one another’s existence’. The penny dropped, but fancy my having to work this out! By way of explanation, my family weren’t the sociable types, so it took me a while to work out that small talk was a fact of life and I had to learn it and learn it I did, but always, I’ve been keen to move on from stuff like this:
Person A ‘How are you?
Person B ‘I’m fine, how are you?
Person A ‘Oh, fine. This weather is awful, isn’t it?’
Person B ‘God, yeah, it’s colder, don’t you think? And the forecast says it’s going to go on all week.’
Person A ‘Yes, I heard that. I’ll never be able to get my washing hung out.’
Person B ‘No.’ Pause. ‘Haven’t you got a spin drier?’
Person A ‘Oh, yes, but I like the freshness of air-dried.’
Person B ‘Oh, right.’
And so it goes on, and if you’ll forgive me being a wee bit sarcastic…it’s a case of blah, blah, yada, yada, going nowhere meaningful, nowhere truly informative or discussional.
Topics include the weather, anything to do mobile phones, sport, entertainment, news, maybe social media, family gossip, family news, including children or grandchildren who have done so well for themselves, whose lives are going glitteringly successfully, don’t you know? Then there’s cars, TV, and anything to do with the consumerist society we live in. Men have their preferences, women theirs, and we all know how well women talk! And in a social gathering women can dominate until the men escape to the confines of their nearest cave – garden shed, greenhouse, garage, perhaps. When I hear my husband talking to a male neighbour it’s a rare event, and usually the neighbour has walked over to talk to him. So I hear them chatting, and the sounds seem animated as opposed to grunts, and I think, Oh, that’ nice, he’s having a good talk, then afterwards I ask him:
‘What were you talking about?’
‘Oh, nothing, really.’
‘No, come on, it was over five minutes, what did you talk about?’
‘Just the car.’
‘It can’t have just been that!’
‘Yeah, it was mostly that, I can’t remember what else he said.’’
Deep sigh from me
So, I think we can agree that on the whole women get the gold star, because even with small talk we tend to listen and take our part in it. And if, in the unlikely event, that my husband and I went to a party, I’d be trying to suffer the small talk, while he strolled around the perimeter of the room, cool as a cucumber, yet hardly engaging. (If you’re into MBTI Jungian types, this respective behaviour is partially explained by my being an INFJ, and him being an INTJ)
And then there’s the topics that arise between complete strangers:
Where do you live? You answer, and they try to locate you, and I’m difficult to locate, as I live in a cottage on a farm, sort of near here, sort of near there, as there are many farms in the Scottish Borders. And so begins the list of places they grope for, while you think – does this really matter? But apparently it does. This happened to me after an ‘arty’ dance class, where I was asked this question by a woman who had taken part in the freely expressive dance session on the theme of honey bees (yes, I went to this, I was curious, but it wasn’t for me). The response was Oh, you must know, X (let’s make it Sarah). I didn’t know Sarah and said so. But the woman was insistent…but you must know her!…I stated again, no, I didn’t, by now beginning to feel like a liar, and that I surely must know Sarah! Anyway, after an awkward silence (the arch enemy of small talk), with me reflecting on why she needed so badly to ‘place’ me alongside someone she knew, she moved on to what she did, and that brings me to the next question…
What do you do? Now I have always hated answering this, because I know they’re trying to box me into a category, to pigeon hole me…and I’ve never wanted to be ‘boxed’, I don’t think many creative people do, because you may be doing a job of work that doesn’t demonstrate both what, and who, you really are. What you do in your spare time reflects you far more fully. What you care about. What you’re interested in. What you believe in. What floats your boat down your very own river, to your very own sparkling ocean. What you do for paid work to pay bills is NOT who you are, unless you’re lucky enough to be able to make your passions pay. When I became an ‘officially’ creative person, I was naturally far happier answering this question, but I still resent the implications of being ‘boxed’ like a parcel and stamped with a stereotype.
So, it would seem small talk is no way to truly get to know someone, to engage more fully, to establish kindred bonds. Small talk confines you to superficial information, the kind of information we fill out forms with. And some people can hide behind it – I’ve come across those who do this – they’re the ones who ask the most questions, they like being in charge right from the start, they feed off you, and seasoned public school types are particularly skilled at it I find. You know this is happening when you come away from an encounter having found out nothing about them, whilst giving away far more than you wanted to give about yourself at this superficial level. What out for this, because I suspect it can be a form of manipulation, there’s far more to this kind of small talk than meets the ear.
But small talk does have its constructive uses, and in thinking about the pros and cons, I can see how closely linked they are:
Small talk is superficial, but that makes it safe, it generally protects against being too revealing. It can be a way of quickly starting a conversation with a stranger which can then be developed if you find something in common to deepen the encounter. This way you can establish a bond surprisingly quickly. The small talk functions as a means to an end.
Here are two ladies who seem to have struck up a conversation they are both happy to engage with, which must have began with small talk.
And It can be between two friends/work colleagues at the start of a conversation, where small talk gets the conversation off to a safe start, before launching into deeper, more purposeful engagement.
‘In spite of seeming to have little useful purpose, small talk is a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing interpersonal distance. It serves many functions in helping to define the relationships between friends, colleagues, and new acquaintances…Small talk is closely related to the need for people to maintain positive face and feel approved of by those who are listening to them. It lubricates social interactions in a very flexible way, but the desired function is often dependent on the point in the conversation at which the small talk occurs. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_talk)
So how to proceed? How to turn our small talk foe into a friend?
Well, once you’re comfortably in the midst of it, shift the small talk to another level by:
Asking open questions – Do you like living around here? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Focus on where you are and what you are doing right now. eg If you’re at a workshop event – ‘What brought you here? How did you hear about this? What are you hoping to get out of it?
Make it more challenging/quirky – you never know, the other person might be inwardly begging for some decent conversation too. Think, what have you got to lose?
If you can both establish you hate small talk – then you’re off into something interesting!
Finally, here is a nice link on developing the art of small talk with suggested questions to make richer engagements.
(images courtesy of pixabay – I love the frogs!)