This week’s column: Chatty Cathy May Have Been Onto Something
So many of us distain small talk and dismiss it as inconsequential. Chit chat. An exchange of weather reports. Little more than a passing “How are you” –“Fine” conversation. Googling the term “small talk” fares no better. One definition deems it “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters”; another calls it “an informal discourse that does not cover any functional topics” and scoffs that it is merely “conversation for its own sake.” Ellen DeGeneres says that she hates “having to do small talk. I’d rather talk about deep subjects…..meditation, or the world, or the trees or animals, than small inane…banter.”
I disagree with Ellen whose career, let’s face it, is in part based on inane banter. Since when did we all become so “deep” that we cannot exchange a pleasantry or two? Meditation, the world, trees and animals can wait. The first thing out of my mouth in a social situation is not going to be something earth shatteringly important or environmentally relevant. Small talk gauges your audience so that you can decide whether keeping up a conversation is worthwhile or should end with a smile and wave goodbye. It is a way in, or as Georgetown Professor Deborah Tannen says: “Small talk is meant to be small. It gets you on friendly ground, and it’s a foundation for when you have something more to say.”
Tannen is quoted in an article by Gloria M. Wong called “I Made Chitchat Meaningful Again”. Wong says that scientists who have studied small talk conclude that it is “like birds touching beaks, we use it to reassure each other that we’re pals.” Wong believes that small talk leads to “big talk” or disclosing something that teeters on the border of TMI (too much information), but does not actually go there. She tells a tale of sharing something with an acquaintance that was slightly revealing which led to the acquaintance then sharing a little about herself. My argument is that this connection could not have been made without the requisite small talk first. Small talk broke the ice.
This topic came to my attention last week. My sister called me and said: “I have a topic for you to write about.” She then told me that someone had accused her of “being good at small talk”, and she was not sure whether this was a compliment or not. She felt like the statement was not an accolade but a (not very well) veiled criticism. We talked for a bit about the topic and came to the conclusion that being good at small talk leads to talking about the bigger things, or the deeper things as Ellen likes to call them. Small talk, when done correctly, makes the other person feel that you are interested. It goes beyond the quick “How are you doing?” as you continue walking and not waiting for an answer.
So many people dismiss small talk and my theory is that they just do not take the time to do it well. I find it difficult at times, but once I realized that I like it when someone takes an interest in me I have tried to cultivate it. Small talk is sharing your time and interest with someone. It is a building block for conversation and a way to make a connection. And what friendship has not begun with small talk?
Actress Courtney Cox declares that she is not good at “small talk”. I have seen her interviewed and if an interview (Hollywood style) is not small talk, then I do not know what is. Small talk is a window into a conversation; it opens the door.
Literary agent, Andrew Wylie declares: “I don’t do Twitter or blog. I’m bad at small talk, and don’t have good chat. Talk to me about publishing, and I can go on for hours.” Not to put too fine point on it, but Andrew, conversation is about give and take—I am not all that interested in you going on and on about one subject without ever asking a question, or being curious about the person you are talking to.
Small talk is a social grace. Many a meal has been spoiled by those who insist on getting their voices heard, their opinions opined, and even their rants pronounced before dessert. I say wait until dessert is over, and then delve into the deeper subjects while doing the dishes.