Monday, October 03, 2016
As an introvert who does not usually enjoy small talk, I can
appreciate why someone would want to do away with it. But a
that purports to do this -- and offer a short-cut to making a "real
connection" -- actually highlights the merits of the
Instead of talking about the weather, Silverman framed one question that everyone has an answer to: "What's the one thing you want to do before you die?" Yes, it takes you out of your comfort zone, but that's the whole point. Small talk is uncomfortable because it's uncomfortable for both parties. Instead, asking a big question that actually requires a thoughtful response breaks the ice and the conversation gets more real. [minor format edits]Really? Some people seem to love small talk, and I have to admit that even I do, on occasion. What I find uncomfortable about it is that I usually am not in the mood for a conversation when it crops up. And that is because I am usually preoccupied with something else, which a full-blown conversation would cause me to not be able to think through, or, worse, forget entirely. And on the flip side, what if I ask this question only to discover that I have started a conversation with a fervent advocate of some cause I regard to be wrong or even repugnant? Talk about awkward... This is not to say I would never want such a conversation. What I want -- and that small talk gives me -- is to be able to decide for myself whether and when to engage in one.
When I encountered this post, I instantly built an internal joke around this suggestion -- to start using it as a default greeting. Wouldn't that be weird, having a total stranger put you on the spot about your hopes and dreams right out of the blue? What makes this weird is precisely what small talk is good for. When I want to have a real conversation, I try to do so with someone I know will (a) actually listen and (b) take me seriously. Small talk immediately helps with both (but mainly the first) by gauging whether the other person is really that interested in having a conversation and, if so, creating an opening for him to continue it. The second part is trickier the deeper one might want the conversation to be: You generally need to know someone more than as a passing acquaintance before you can guess at the answer to that question. (Part of this will include how interested they are in having deep conversations, or whether they might even, say, be vehemently opposed to the biggest thing on your bucket list.) Indeed, it's possible to go back-and-forth for quite a while, only to discover the person you're speaking to doesn't give a hoot in hell about the topic in hand. Why invite such frustration with everyone you meet?
Small talk may seem trite, and it may feel like an annoying obligation, but it functions like many other conventions of etiquette. Small talk permits us to politely acknowledge another's presence, gauge interest in conversation, and possibly begin to find out something about the character of a stranger. It invites interaction while respecting personal boundaries. Until you know much more about another person, a deep connection really isn't possible anyway. This is why I find the suggestion to lay out a major life goal at the outset to be absurd. Small talk acknowledges these facts by avoiding controversy while providing a starting-off point for a longer conversation. A noncommittal reply is perfectly moral and acceptable, whereas it might not be with many other topics.
For the same reason judging others is difficult, so it is to form a real connection with them. Rather than decry small talk, we should recognize it as the first small step in possibly doing exactly what it is being accused here of preventing.