Small talk: as essential as salt

Salinas de Maras, Peru
Like salt, small talk is pretty essential. Salt harvesting, Salinas de Maras, pre-Incan salt-pans still in use. Peru, January 2020.

Small talk: the poor thing’s got a poor reputation despite being a vital part of our social dynamics. It gets classified along with gossip which doesn’t do it much good. After all, small talk doesn’t necessarily mean unkind whispers behind someone else’s back, nor even the more well-intentioned rather preachy words said because we care, but because we also have a sense of self-righteousness, and well… she did bring it on herself, didn’t she? If only she hadn’t…

A distinction must be made.

I’m not sure gossip adds value to our lives, but I’m pretty sure small talk is essential to them. Conversations typically begin with small talk.

If you don’t believe me, imagine this situation. You’re the language assistant in a big university, who started work a few weeks into the term. It’s your second day of work. You enter the staff room uncertain of where to sit. Nobody looks up at you because people are correcting their students’ assignments, preparing their classes or deep in conversations which you feel to listen to would be to infringe on their privacy.

Someone looks up, says hello, asks how you are

If you can’t do small talk, if you can’t navigate the social signals which are so often conveyed by these seemingly meaningless words, you don’t get as far as the more meaningful conversation that we all need to feel properly listened to.

Here’s an experiment

Think of a few different people you know and consider who among these people seem the most comfortable around strangers. Now when you meet* each of these people, note how long it takes before they ask a direct small talk question about you and your life. Do they comment on the weather or some common knowledge? Maybe it’s something simple like how are your parents/children, or what are you doing for the holidays. It’s a ‘safe’ question with no particular transactional purpose.

People who don’t find social interaction all that easy often take a long time to ask these questions and when they do ask these questions feel hellishly awkward about doing so, like they’re aware they’ve missed the beat of the conversation where the question might normally be asked and now don’t quite know how to the rescue the situation. Sometimes they suddenly become aware that they’ve been conducting a monologue for a while and then don’t know how to rebalance the conversation. These same people might love silence within their intimate relationships, but find it excruciating elsewhere. They may spend the conversation thinking about themselves either because they’re feeling a tad awkward or they’re busy answering the other person’s questions and focusing on what to say next.

Small talk, can be really hard but without it, how do we go from meeting for the first time to becoming friends?

I think that sometimes we develop idiosyncratic small talk repertoires

Being English, mine involves the weather. One student, after asking me three times a week at the beginning of each class, ‘how are you?’ commented: When I ask how you are, you always reply by telling me what the weather is. Until that point, I hadn’t realized that I use the weather as a technique for moving the conversation on.

“How are you?”

“I’m okay, how are you?”

“Fine, but it’s been raining all day and the sky is so grey.”

Some people can manage this small talk business with ease, but then get stuck in it

If I’m spending an hour on the phone to someone, I’d rather have a conversation that branches into the emotional, the ethical dilemmas, the political, scientific, historical causes and consequences. I love discussing society as a concept because I struggle to understand it. I want to understand your discomfort with your own ideologies because I’m learning to critique my own. And I want the conversation where you wrestle with your own beliefs because it forces me to wrestle with mine. And, thanks to my lifestyle and my work, I get the opportunity to have lots of such conversations.

But occasionally someone mentions to me how such a conversation can be difficult to get into. They become fed up with small talk or talking about meaningless matters because they seem to go on and on in a circle. They don’t want to offend (small talk is entirely about social bonding) but their intellects aren’t being stimulated. Then they get bored and don’t know how to take the conversation forward.

I have found this happening to me more often during lockdown because there is such monotony to the day and so little that is new. There is only so much conversation about grammar my parents can stomach.

I can feel it happen sometimes in class

If I have a new, intermediate level student then there is a pause somewhere in the second or third conversation class where we have exhausted the small talk that they are comfortable with, and rather than skim across a subject we need to switch to going deeper into a subject. It’s the point where I switch to trying to entice the student to tell me a story. Tell me more? But why? How come? Maybe a few classes later, we might hit on something that they deeply care about. A sense of emotion colours their stories. Their grammar slips, and they might physically seem to shake off the bounds of grammar because they’re determined now to make their point or tell their story. They lean forward and repeat phrases, this is the point that the student becomes the teacher. What we’re talking about is more important to them than the English. My job is to subtly prompt the correct grammar and supplement their vocabulary as is needed without upsetting their flow of thought. It’s a challenge I adore.

In a class, I have the power to push for more depth because I’m the teacher, and they have the power to say no because they’re paying. In a purely social environment, it can be trickier. When you’ve landed in a different culture and don’t have a huge amount of background knowledge, it can be terrifying knowing whether you can ask a question or not. You may make assumptions which then cause you embarrassment – like making a joke about marriage to the couple you’re living with… who it turns out might have two children and religious parents, but who aren’t themselves married. Or you might not dare make any assumptions whatsoever because you’re frightened of putting your foot in it. That said, in a foreign culture, you’re also afforded a tad more forgiveness when you get it wrong.

Small talk builds the relationship

But at some point, you need to ask the question that takes things a little deeper. On this topic, a friend of mine recently defined deep as having an emotional aspect. This makes it a dangerous step. Take for example the middle-aged man who wants to criticize feminism without causing offence, or the person who wants to make the connection between social inequality and race and just as they are about to state something about skin tones realizes, they don’t know the ‘right’ words.

It’s me, every time I open my mouth on the subject of colonialism. It’s the question of the impact of scientific inquiry and tourism in the area where a total solar eclipse is visible, an area which happens to be the indigenous heartland and the indigenous peoples believe fiercely that such a wonder represents a time for deep silence.

Sometimes, the beginning of this unravelling is to show my confusion and discomfort. I want to say that I don’t understand, but I’m trying to. It’s to position myself as curious, open-minded and non-judgemental. Nobody is going to tell me anything if they don’t feel both safe and listened to.

“I can see that a three-pence rise in a metro fare is really important to people here, but I don’t get why.”

“Because it’s not about three pence, it’s about a history of aggressive social inequality…”

If you don’t dare ask the hard questions, you don’t get to see beneath the surface.


* Perhaps virtually