The Magical Power of Small Talk

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Image from Preply

Throw unacquainted humans into a close-knit social gathering, and observe the plentiful, awkward small talk. Though often uncomfortable, such events can be important to one’s social life, so we must trudge through them, in the hope that we’ll exit the building having skilfully skimmed the surface with our conversation, never diving too deep, committing social taboos, or generally upsetting people with overly-intimate topics.

Small talk has a reputation for being banal, and for good reason. Pointing out the fact that it’s raining seems as ridiculous as pointing out the fact that you have a head—you’re fully aware of both things, and don’t require an outsider to confirm them. But despite being obvious and often painfully dull, small talk has an important role to play, allowing us to leap over a number of social obstacles towards improved, meaningful interaction.

“It would seem that the variability of the weather was purposely devised to furnish mankind with unfailing material for conversation.”

Emily Post, Etiquette

Humans can be sensitive souls. We each have our boundaries and lists of potential upsets, which when breached, cause us to either gently back away to an alternative position in the room, or become angry at the infraction. Small talk is first and foremost a way to test the waters with an unfamiliar person, so that you may better understand their temperament. When finding yourself positioned closely to a person who you know little about, it’s much safer to point out the rain-soaked sky than to launch into a political tirade about your views on transgender pronouns. Until you know the person more intimately, heavier topics should probably be kept under wraps, lest you find yourself on the receiving end of a cold, offended stare.

“[Small talk is] the human equivalent of dogs sniffing butts.”

Intrapersona on the Philosophy Forum

Though trivial, small talk still has great revelatory power. When talking with fellow humans, much of our soul is exposed through non-verbal communication, despite our fear of being vulnerable. A response to “how was your weekend” can unveil much about the person’s character. The length of their response might indicate their level of confidence; the tone in their voice an indication of friendliness; their slightly lowered head–as if protecting themselves from attack—a exposé of a regrettable history of bullying. As a species we’re excellent communicators, and though small talk might seem bland, it’s the ideal way to learn about a person with who you’re uninformed.

As more of a person’s character is uncovered, we have the insight needed to determine whether to broach more meaningful topics—the things that we actually want to talk about. Few of us have passion for banal small talk; as soon as we understand someone more intimately, our inclination is to talk about subjects that are meaningful; questions that latch onto our soul and don’t let go. Conversation is a great educator, and deep conversation creates lasting bonds with our fellow humans, forging precious friendships that paint our lives with vibrant colour. Such friendships begin with small talk.

“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”

Aristotle

We cannot conceive of a new person fully without modest first steps; the necessary, cautious introduction to somebody’s soul. Great friendships have small beginnings— profundity is preceded by much insipid natter, whether it be about the city-darkening rainclouds, the football results from the weekend, or the latest remarkable idiocy from Donald. Shallow topics are an invaluable stepping stone to greater things.

“Thomas’s mistake, like most of the behavior he leaked into the world, had been avoidable: to join another human being in a situation that virtually demanded unscripted, spontaneous conversation, and thus to risk total moral and emotional dissolution. Death by conversation, and all that.”

Ben Marcus, Leaving the Sea

Small talk is also a way to communicate that you’re interested in somebody—idle chat that reveals a desire to understand the person a little better. This may be painless for an extrovert, but for those crippled with shyness, the process can be formidable. In light of the importance of friendship and meaningful connection, those of us naturally blessed with confidence should always make the effort with introverts, despite them often coming across as coldly closed-off. Underneath the restrained exterior is a lion wanting to roar.

Then there’s awkward silence to consider, a vacuum so dreaded that we’ll say anything to fill it, sometimes with amusing consequences:

“Have you always had a moustache?”

Abigail’s Party

We abhor silence around others because it seems to communicate the following: I’m not interested in what you have to sayWhen we’re thrust into a cramped situation with another human being, with nothing else to entertain us, not saying anything seems rude. We’re making a conscious choice to stay silent, and that decision can be interpreted as antipathy, or even animosity, towards the other person. Deep down we all want to be liked, and to be surrounded by caring friends. Small talk provides the initial steps towards this goal. Our hopeless, 21st-century addiction to mobile phones acts as a deadly poison to friendship-forming—it’s so much easier to assume the role of an unsociable screen-zombie, staring blankly at our devices instead of having the courage to ask about somebody’s day.

For some people, small talk seems the summit of their capability; a result of a lack of education, exploration, and daring in their lives. Progressing to meaningful topics is impossible if you aren’t aware of them. We need to read books from insightful authors; consume penetrating, thoughtful YouTube videos, and board sky-bound Airbuses towards remote and exotic destinations, if we want our conversation and personality to progress past mundanity. Rarely does Facebook, Instagram, or any other insipid social media platform offer us the content we need to become more intriguing.

“He was permanently impressed by the most irrelevant banalities and impossible to impress with real novelty, meaning, or conflict. And he was too moronic to be properly self-loathing–so it was my duty to loathe him instead.”

Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn

Most of us become guarded when encountering unfamiliar people, in order to protect ourselves from hurt. Their personality is obscure from the outset, and though there may be potential for a deep, meaningful relationship, until we know them better, we keep them at a safe distance. Small talk offers us the means to be necessarily vulnerable, at a slower, more agreeable pace. It’s the precursor to treasured human connection. So the next time you find yourself in close proximity with an unfamiliar person, commenting on the weather might be one of the most valuable things that you can do.

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