Small Talk

I don’t like small talk and never learned the art of it.

I felt better about this when I heard that a relative of my mom’s doesn’t like small talk either, but he’s also a nurse who proudly says he works just enough shifts to subsist and used to live on a sort of commune in Oregon with his ex-girlfriend and her mother (maybe he still does…maybe I’ve got the details wrong). In other words, he’s an eccentric. A marvelous eccentric, perhaps, but still an eccentric who can’t be bothered with commenting on the weather or answering breezy questions of the “So what’s new with you?” variety, and therefore gets a hall pass. But it does make me wonder if I’m an eccentric, too, and if I’ve been one all along.

Or I could just have the labels wrong. I’ve described myself as an angry child, but maybe I was just terribly saddened and confused by most human behavior. I called myself a granola in high school (my journalism teacher said, “You’re not a granola,” and she went to college in Boulder, so she would know), but maybe I just had an acute case of senioritis, and not bothering with my hair, clothes, or make-up for a year was my last defiant act. I’ve also been a feminist (of the newly-crowned-in-college variety), a pessimist (now reformed—can’t you tell?), and more recently a Luddite. I know for certain I’m an introvert, but I’m not at all certain that being a former pessimistic feminist/current Luddite introvert/possible marvelous eccentric is the sum total of who I am.

Being an introvert, however, does explain my lack of interest in small talk, the trouble of which is that the things I want to know about can’t usually be gleaned from a surface-level conversation. They are things usually considered too forward or inquisitive to ask unless you know the person well (and it takes awhile for introverts to get to know anyone well), but they are the only things, in my mind, that matter. Not to mention that small talk for an introvert sends our circuits into overdrive. An introvert knows there is no easy answer, nor is there just one answer, nor can the answer be contained to itself without all the history involved, and as we ponder what we’ve been asked while trying to hide the pondering from our interrogator and appear reasonably normal and prepare to give the right kind of offhanded reply, they stand there puzzling over why we can’t just say what we had for lunch yesterday.

In my experience, small talk is the territory of the pathologically chatty, who have probably never listened in their lives. It’s the swampy territory of the sales pitch, where something of mine (my money, my soul) is sought in exchange for polite interest or over-dramatic concern. And the inane territory of, God help us, networking events where “And what do you do?” is asked without irony by grown adults in business casual wearing name tags.

I’m being harsh, though. I suppose there are some merits to talking about the weather and asking what’s new in that it eventually opens the door through which a genuinely interested person can be invited. Like my boyfriend, who learned to talk to absolutely everyone when he was a bartender in London, and is truly interested…in everyone. And my dad, who learned the gift of gab from his parents and peers in a bygone era when such talents were revered.

But my mom, my sister, and my brother are more like me. Small talk makes us itch and look for the nearest exit. Yet if trapped, we don’t run for the hills as looking for the nearest exit would suggest. Instead, something weird happens. We put on armor. You can see it in action. Our eyes change, our gaze penetrates, our mouths twist, we size people up. We prepare to parlay with sly comments and careful banter. We know in fifteen seconds if we have the patience for the next five minutes or the next five hours, or if we’ll cut it off immediately. And the only way we know is if something is revealed by the other person—often subtle and non-verbal—showing he or she is not interested in wading through the bullshit, either, and is, in fact, a worthy opponent.

And it’s not that I have anything against human communication. To the contrary. It’s that I hate superficiality. Which is why social media is so distasteful to me. The quip, the witticism, the airy aside…the “everything is always awesome in my world” post (juxtaposed, oddly, with the doom, gloom, and constant outrage over things of which almost no one has any real or adequate knowledge or experience).

No matter how you slice it, humans aren’t communicating anymore (which would involve some kind of actual exchange in which one person says something, and another person listens, and then that person says something back showing that they actually listened). Instead, humans are declaring with the full force of our enlarged egos. We are enamored with our declarations and our many, many opinions. We are obsessed with our followers and admirers. Mesmerized by the near-immediate responses we get, the attention and “support” from friends we don’t even know. Energized when we can call someone out—publicly—with whom we disagree. And besotted by a living logbook of our optimally posed selfies. Social media is, by design, not for those who want to listen and learn. “Join the conversation” doesn’t mean what you think it does. It should be restated: “Don’t hold back! The world is waiting for your crappy, misinformed, fluffy, puffy, putrid prattle! Do it now before someone else gets the jump on you!” Meanwhile, no one reads books anymore. No one reads anything longer than 140 characters. And no one is able to dive any deeper than fashion, pop culture, celebrity couples, professional sports, and political theatre without soon resorting to sucker-punching, name-calling, and a whole lot of hurt feelings a la fifth grade in Mrs. Hall’s class. (I promise you I’m actually an optimist these days).

Social media is simply small talk for the twenty-first century…and it’s utterly exhausting.

(My internal voice will wake me up tonight: “Retract! Retract! Nothing is all good or all bad!” I’m saying it to you now, so that I don’t have to wake up tonight and rush to the computer: good can come from bad, bad can come from good, yes, even in social media).

But wait a minute, wait a minute…I mentioned it back there, several paragraphs ago. The only things, in my mind, that matter. I know you didn’t ask (because you’re possibly an introvert, too?), but maybe you’d still like to know.

Preferably over coffee or a glass of wine at a nice shady table, during an extended dinner, a trans-Atlantic flight, a relaxing ride on the porch swing, a snowy evening indoors, or when the chips are down and you have some time to contemplate your next move, here are those things:

Have you ever experienced serendipity?

Who do you think you were in a past life? And what from that life did you carry with you today?

Why does [fill in the tragedy or perceived struggle] have to be your path? What if your path is something different?

Why did you make the choices you did?

How have you changed or grown, and how have you stayed the same?

Who or what surprised the heck out of you?

On your death bed, what will you be glad you did, said, believed? What will you know for certain didn’t matter at all?

You can try stopping a stranger on the street and asking them. If they don’t give you a dirty look and hurry away, you may get some interesting answers. Or you can ask the people who are in your inner circle. However, to get to those people, to form an inner circle, I concede that you may have to first converse about the weather or what’s new or—criminy—what you ate for lunch yesterday.

Happy small (and large) talking.

4 thoughts on “Small Talk

  1. Good post, the comment “constant outrage over things of which almost no one has any real or adequate knowledge or experience” has been particularly prevalent in the UK of late. I think some folk go looking for places to be annoyed on/at.
    I can go with small talk by folk I might bump into by chance who I’ve never met before, never know what I might learn.
    The worse scenario is at the ‘social’ or ‘business’ meet where the talk turns to what everyone is doing to improve their house, where they are going for holidays, or where they went last week-end; which is coded talk for ‘Is it wonderful? I too have so much to spend. Isn’t life grand for us blessed few!’

  2. I’m reading “Small Talk” with interest. I have a couple thoughts: You use the words “worthy opponent” Does that mean that conversation is a “sparring match”?

    You share some of my background and origins, so you’ll likely understand when I say that certain relatives appear to not have learned listening skills. Conversations tend to be dominated by people who 1) love to entertain–they take center stage, and tell whatever they believe will attract listeners–think “snake oil” 2) Certain folks have small life experiences; and I believe that the larger ones experience, the more interesting that person’s small talk is. I’m imagining that if we had opportunity to listen to Cokie Robert’s “small talk”–she, whose mother was Ambassador to the Vatican, and whose father was in the U.S. House of Representatives–we would find her interesting. Instead of viewing people as extroverted, or introverted, I might categorize them according to their ability to listen,or according to their life experiences; or their interests–geography, travel, architecture, music, history, or politics. Last, I believe that spaces, and surroundings affect how and what people communicate at particular times. I personally would have difficulty, in most spaces, discussing any of the questions you list.

    Heaven knows, I’ve been party to many an unsatisfying conversation. When an amazing event happens, I treasure it forever. I like nothing better than sharing truly, madly, deeply.

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