The Power of Small Talk
Even the most banal conversations matter.
Posted Feb 26, 2017
The things that people say in history books tend to be momentous: L’État, c’est moi … Four score and seven years ago … we shall fight on the beaches … and so on. No one, as far as I know, has ever thought to write a history of stalled, stilted or banal conversations – of all those social occasions where, in the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s words, “small talk dies in agonies”. This is despite the fact that we can be fairly sure that a lot of the things that people have said to each other throughout history have been banal conversation fillers. But the very phrase, “small talk”, suggests something unimportant and unworthy of reflection. (The same applies in other languages: in Sweden small talk is kallprata, literally “cold talk”.)
In novels and plays, too, most conversation is useful or expository and hardly anyone ever struggles for things to say. Even in plays in which the dialogue is supposed to be like “real life”, such those of Harold Pinter or Mike Leigh, there is usually a point and a purpose to it (although I do like that desperate line in Leigh’s Abigail’s Party – “Have you always had a moustache?” – and the final scene of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables is played out almost entirely in small talk and is all the more heartbreaking for it).
One of the consoling things about writing a book about shyness is discovering people who were even worse at small talk than me. In his memoir of early manhood, The Weald of Youth, the poet Siegfried Sassoon writes of a family friend called Watson – he did not make enough of an impression to be gifted a first name – who could never think of things to say. His conversational opener was “Have you been to Macrihanish?” Since this was a remote golf course on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, it invited only the conversation-closing response, “no”. When all conversation died, Watson had the same failsafe strategy: he revealed that he fed his chickens with salad oil. Sassoon sympathised with Watson, for he was almost as bad at small talk himself. At a party in 1911, he spent the entire evening asking every one he met if they would be in London for the Coronation, and agreeing when they answered that “on the whole it would be just as well not to be”.
The scientist and World War II codebreaker Alan Turing was astonished by his mother’s ability to persist in small talk with unforthcoming people, to work what he called “rope and pickaxe” in the most inhospitable social terrain. The shy Turing was not prepared to scramble about on even the gentlest slopes of small talk. If he was bored by what he called “vapid conversation”, he would simply walk away.
I suspect that, as with Turing, what partly sustains the shyness of many people is that little part of us that finds much social conversation to be an empty ritual, a mere filling in of awkward silence. The socially confident can seem to us not to be listening to each other at all, but simply playing a game of conversational catch, exchanging words like a ball thrown through the air. The shy are not just bad at small talk; we are against it on principle. We feel we have some special flair for avoiding the platitudinous, what the writer Cyril Connolly called that “ceremony of self-wastage” which takes place whenever fluent conversers assemble and dispense their energies in “noises upon the air”.
We are wrong, of course – or at least we are searching for an unattainable truth. Not all conversation can be profound, because our inner lives will always be richer than our ability to articulate them, and talk is about creating common ground out of words, a shared reality that is, like all shared realities, fuzzy and flawed. Some kinds of talk are nothing more than their pleasing surfaces, but are no less real for that. All of us, including the shy, might as well seek meaning and take delight in those surfaces – because looking for depth in them is like trying to walk through a looking glass into a world that doesn’t exist.
Unlike Turing, then, I have come to see that small talk is far from being a vice. It is a vital life skill, without which our mental health and relationships with others are likely to be impoverished. But for me, acquiring that vital skill seems to be the work of a lifetime.