The Power of Small Talk

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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 of 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 say. When 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.

 

 

I don’t like you – want to come to my party?

daniel-pascoa-253357-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Daniel Páscoa on Unsplash

There’s certain people in this world who I just don’t like very much. My antipathy could be a consequence of their incessant, dronesome tales of work and how badly it affects their victim-like lives. It might be a result of a boastful tale of stealing somebody else’s boyfriend, in which they found no wrong. They could be overly aggressive and confrontational, which scrapes the meeker aspects of my personality. It might be all of these things and more.

Whatever the gripes, being in such a person’s company is hard work – conversation is shallow and awkward, emotions are forced, and I suspect that both of us want to be as far away from each other as possible.

So if you’re planning a social gathering, and that person happens to float within the social circles of people who you do want to attend, should you grit your teeth and invite them?

I’m hardly a high-flying socialite, but this question has still plagued me on multiple occasions. My distaste of the person and my selfishness makes it hard to extend an invite, while the kinder aspects of my nature yearns to do the right and gracious thing. 

Being fake is rarely good, and spending time with someone we dislike requires it unless we want to end up sneering at each other from across the table. Becoming an object of hate doesn’t do much for the self-esteem, so the alternative is shitty small talk, in which our phones develop an unprecedented allure. As much as we desperately want to make some kind of connection, if only to expel the wrenching tension, neither of us can say anything that interests the other. Our hobbies, TV habits, music preferences, senses of humour and morals are completely misaligned. It’s like a teenager trying to have a conversation with an old person – they may as well be from different planets. The person in question probably doesn’t even want an invite.

“I don’t hate you.. I just don’t like that you exist” — Gena Showalter, Seduce the Darkness

It also feels like a waste of time, which I could be spending in the company of people who I enjoy. The gravity of those folk is strongest for us – we’re gladly drawn into their comfortable, socially-pleasing orbit, as opposed to being propelled away by unpleasant and jarring conversation. We only get one chance at this life – why the hell should we fritter it away with people who irritate us? Friendship circles are born from similarities – the objected person is unlikely to fit in, so it seems a waste of their time too. Your friends might also be wondering why you invited such an abrasive person, with your hard-won reputation taking a hit in the process.

On the other hand, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, as I know how awful it feels. I’ve spent some hours on a dark and lonely lunch-time bench, head down, wondering why I was such a despicable loser who not even a mother could love. Being left out can seem an insult to your personality – the very thing that defines you. Inflicting this kind of hurt onto somebody is painful in itself.

Kindness is a wonderful thing, and putting the person’s needs before your own is a genuinely nice thing to do, even though every aspect of your soul revolts against it. The simple decency of inviting the person might help them to make new friends – finer gifts are difficult to find. The favour might even be returned, giving you the chance to meet new people and form beneficial, lasting relationships. Stone-cold exclusivity, while infinitely more comfortable, doesn’t yield such benefits.

As people, we can be awfully judgmental. The aversion that we feel towards certain humans is a direct result of our judgments about them, and though they may be shared by others, and based on solid reality, they still darken our lives. Once a dislike judgment has been made about someone, the good becomes imperceptible, even when on display. Unless (and even if) the person is a psychopathic mass-murderer, they still have some undeniably good aspects to their character. We have to force ourselves to see them, and by doing so, we’re demonstrating admirable compassion, with an increased appreciation for the person as a result. Judging sabotages friendships; it’s the arch-enemy of much-needed human connection. While advocating complete non-judgment would be foolish (we need it to prevent ourselves from being harmed), a lessened approach is infinitely  more humane and loveable.

“When we dislike someone, or feel threatened by someone, the natural tendency is to focus on something we dislike about the person, something that irritates us. Unfortunately, when we do this–instead of seeing the deeper beauty of the person and giving them energy–we take energy away and actually do them harm. All they know is that they suddenly feel less beautiful and less confident, and it is because we sapped their energy.” — James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy

Sticking with the same old people can also become dreadfully boring. That objectible person who you’re so averse to include might be refreshingly stimulating, if you abandoned your judgments and gave them a chance. Difficult to do, but an undeniably worthy pursuit.

The next time that you’re drawing up a guest list and you find yourself in this sticky situation, tap into your compassion and try to see the good in people. Ruthless and relentless judging is valuable for nobody. By keeping an open mind, and practising non-judgment, you’re opening yourself up to greater emotional connection with the world, even those who you’ve already lumped into the dislike group. With luck and a little effort, you might form a lasting friendship.

How to talk good

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For the first time since we’ve been together (2 years), my girlfriend recently used her telephone to call my telephone. I stared at the device in silence for a solid five seconds before picking it up, and intentionally applied a miffed tone to my opening words. I didn’t have a clue what to make of this diversion from the norm, and I wanted her to understand, in no uncertain terms, that I was far from comfortable with it. After some seconds of conversation, it became clear that she didn’t have a solid reason for choosing to call instead of text. I suspect that she just wanted to irritate me a bit.

It goes without saying that texting is all the rage these days. People who socially communicate by calling are often to be found sporting tartan slippers and really-quite-lovely beige cardigans, the perfect casual-wear for nestling into the sofa while they catch up with their middle-aged son, who is silently resenting them for not texting. Perhaps it’s their gnarled, arthritic hands that rob them of the dexterity needed to text. Or maybe, in their infinite wisdom, they understand that talking is a much better form of communication.

The problem with texting is that you’re missing out on two major elements of communication: tone, and body language. Have you ever tried to convey sarcasm in text message? It’s fucking difficult, even with the use of emojis. Your jokes are destined to be met with a stony-expression, and your subject left wondering when it was that you became mentally disabled. This form of communication is literally retarded, missing two crucial aspects of something that is, quite frankly, difficult at the best of times. We need every tool available to us if we’re to successfully transmit the thrilling tale of how we got a chunk of bacon stuck up our nostril as a child. Text message just isn’t up to the job when it comes to such important stories, and they are important, when you consider how much they bond us to our fellow humans. A well-told bacon-anatomy story could be the difference between you being flush with chums, or alone with a noose around your neck. Millennials may be able to hold four text-conversations at once, but it’s unlikely that any of them will have any real depth. This can only be achieved with time, and the full use of your brain.

Another reason for our obsession with texting is our love of distraction and feeling busy. We anticipate every dopamine-releasing ding of our phones, as it means that we can do something easier for a little while and put off the difficult thing in front of us, whether that’s a challenging project, or using our actual mouths to talk to a friend.

Sherry Turkle – a social psychologist at MIT – believes that actual conversation makes us better empathisers, more creative, and more fulfilled. It’s obvious really – of course we’re not going to be able to empathise as well when we’re missing key aspects of communication. Our creativity is bound to be stunted for the same reason – there’s less stimulus for us to react to. Being more fulfilled speaks to the effectiveness of face-to-face or vocal communication in making ourselves known to our interlocutor.

When it comes to romantic relationships, research found that students who spent a lot of time texting were less satisfied with their partnership than other couples. Texting lacks the intimacy that comes with seeing your partner’s face while you’re telling them about your shitty day, or explaining to them why it isn’t acceptable to use the last batch of coffee beans and “forgetting” to replace them. You may be able to get away with that shit over text message, but not face-to-face. Maybe one of the reasons we like texting so much is because it’s a less effective way to communicate, keeping our abysmal secrets safely cloaked. We’d rather be guarded than vulnerable, because there’s less chance of our uncountable negative qualities being revealed. Not only is face-to-face communication more exposing, it’s also more mentally demanding, as our answers must be delivered almost immediately. There’s no social points to be won with awkward ten-second silences while we think of the “perfect” response. Texting is simply easier, but at a cost of decreased intimacy and affection with those around us.

If you have a request to make of someone at work, you’re also shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t do it in person. A Harvard Business Study found that a face-to-face request is a mammoth 34 times more effective than email. This is due to the frequency of email scams, and the trustworthy, non-verbal cues that are conveyed during a regular old-fashioned conversation. Our faces are much more assuring than a dodgy link in an email.

The next time you’re about to text a friend, give them a call instead. It’ll be less convenient, and they’ll probably think you’re a fucking weirdo, but you might become closer to each other as a result. Even better, meet up with them in person, risk embarrassment and social awkwardness, and gain a potential companion instead of a distanced associate. Communication began as face-to-face grunts, and while we may have advanced a little since those hairy, savannah-dwelling days, that method of discourse still reigns supreme.

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