Tag Archives conversation

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

If you want to learn about life, talk to someone who has lived a tough one

By Posted on Location: 6min read
Conversation with a Spanish Grandmother - Jardín de Floridablanca, Murcia, May 2019
Jardín de Floridablanca, Murcia, May 2019

My Grandmother leant me a book about a nun

In her twenties, the nun in the book went to an interview for a place at the National College of Domestic Subjects to study cookery. In front of the panel, she was asked to read a section from The Times newspaper. Having been born to wealth and educated by her mother to become a lady, she read with what she describes as a ‘cut-glass accent’.

A chap on the panel whispered, “I don’t think Sister Agatha will be much good in the East End of London.”

At which point she realised her error and broke through the ice around them by adding, “Now, me ‘ole Dutch, where we ‘orf tonight?”

Smiles appeared throughout the panel, which decided to accept her. She’d proven she could adapt her tone.

Speaking in an inclusive manner can be rather tricky

Conversing isn’t always easy, especially across cultures, across differences in educational opportunity and across generations. I think those of us who seek out opportunities to converse across such barriers don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we do.

Just the other week I was reminded how hard we must work to get the most out of a conversation.

Imagine a very tidy living room and a stiff-backed sofa

I was sitting upright, body lent forward, alert because I was having coffee with my friend´s mother – a tiny woman with strong eyes. Such a situation can be a little daunting even if you speak the same language, but here I was having to converse in Spanish. Spanish. That language which has me dancing on the edge of my comfort zone on an almost daily basis.

This time, I was talking about France

I have within me a repertoire of short stories to which I have learnt, through perseverance and embarrassment, the relevant vocabulary. Good conversations involve stories or at least interesting examples the other person can connect to. Stories also fill time and make a conversation feel fluid.

What’s more, I quite enjoy trampling over people’s assumptions about me. I enjoy eliciting surprise. You need a bit of wonder sprinkled in a conversation to keep your audience paying attention.

During this conversation, however, I was doing nothing artful with my language

The anxiety that strikes me whenever I must speak to someone new in Spanish had entered my bones, and the cogs in my brain were overheating. The Spanish grandmother didn’t ask complex questions, but her Spanish is drenched in dialect, which frustrated our translator and aid (her son), who desperately wanted me to understand for myself.

I was speaking particularly badly

I was nervous. So out of necessity, the Spanish grandmother was taking responsibility for the structure of the conversation. I hate this, but whilst I can structure a conversation in English, doing the same in Spanish is beyond me.

From the start, she knew I taught English

Like many people, she was curious as to how I’d ended up where I was. I explained how I’d worked in a ‘proper job’ once upon a time. In an office, at a desk, next to a window. And I explained how I’d watched Spring come from behind the glass pane, summer pass by, and eventually autumn arrive. Then I told her about France. I told her about working the land, driving diggers and feeding the sheep.

Now lost between a historic frustration and a series of memories, I described my nostalgia for that physical sensation of labour. I tried to avoid romanticising it because hard physical labour is not romantic. But I did contrast the physical work on the land to the labours of the mind. And all this in broken sentences with the verbs conjugated aloud.

The Spanish grandmother frowned

Her eyes communicated her recognition of my naivety, not in a patronising manner, but in the way that a teacher might look at a child who just hasn’t quite got it. A maternal look, but not a soft look.

Her voice, however, when she spoke, was soft and steady. She said that outside work is both, body and mind.

I felt that she was navigating through some of her own memories

Even now she works on the land and has done I believe for much of her life. Her skin is golden, showing a lifetime of being drenched in sunlight. The previous week she’d been picking flowers. She knows more about the land than I ever will, but when she spoke, her words were more like poetry, describing the relationship between the worker and the land as a form of art.

This was not what I had expected

As I learnt about the woman I was speaking to, I was reminded of how although she had little formal education, she possessed immense wisdom, and it gave me an insight into my own child-like self. In her eyes, I am not much older than a child.

Although, she acknowledged with a little surprise, I have experienced a lot for one so young.

Her school life had centred around the church

Every morning in her school she’d had to start with prayers because her school life had happened under Franco’s Catholic Nationalism. A complete contrast to my upbringing. I declared myself an atheist at the age of 7. The only people who argued the case for religion with me were my father (whose beliefs don’t appear to include an almighty being) and much later, Grand-père (who went to mass every Sunday and brought me back gigantic meringues).

She asked about my religious beliefs or lack of belief

And I fumbled through my vocabulary, trying to find the words to describe something I’m not sure I could articulate in English. All the time she watched me with immense curiosity.

Religion in Spain is a dangerous topic. Some people talk about religion as a pillar holding up the rest of life, whilst others have an audible snarl in their throats when they mention the church. I’m fascinated by these attitudes to religion, but I know I must tread with care. The girls at school describe my Yorkshire influenced accent as being cute, and although I’m sometimes conscious of the childish sound of my voice, sometimes I’m grateful for it.

She listened though, receptive to what I was saying, and I was grateful.

And then just before she was about to leave, she motioned to my ebook reader

It lay on the coffee table where I’d discarded it when she’d arrived. She told me she didn’t read on phones and suchlike, she reads books printed on paper. A literature lover. Despite all the differences we might have, we are fellow bibliophiles. My heart felt lighter.

Which brings me back to my Grandmother’s book about a nun

I started off sceptical. Reading about a rich young lady who gave up her fiancé and dedicated her life to her God, I wasn’t sure how well I’d connect. At first, I found her story a little frustrating.

And then, in her fifties, she decides that she’s going to travel. She doesn’t have much in the way of cash, because nuns don’t, and yet, her passion to travel forced her to find a way. And that I could relate to.

What’s more, when she talked about her terrible driving, I couldn’t help but think of the habit-wearing nun who nearly ran me over the other day.

The book was A Nun’s Story by Sister Agatha and Richard Newman.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might like a reminder of this old post about what I learnt talking to Grand-père.

Changed by a conversation and then changed again, and again, and again

By Posted on Location: 3min read
An evening walk and time to reflect.

I have a delusion in my mind that life will somehow become a little simpler. It is a delusion because life does not unfold that way. Each crease brings out a more nuanced view of the world. Every person you meet complicates matters. You realize that you are more than you thought, and less than you thought, and that these two, logically contradictory thoughts are simultaneously true.

When you are child existence is only that which you can see and feel

The idea that your parents might have another life outside of you is something that creeps upon you slowly. At some point I realized that the Mother was a nurse, which was good because nurses are good, that she looked after poorly children, which is also good because looking after poorly children is good. And then, sometime a little later, these thoughts coalesced in my brain and I realized that there were other children in the Mother’s life, children who were not me or my sister, and I was jealous.

At first such a jealousy is acute. However, as time passes, whilst it remains, and will most likely always remain, it merges into something else. My mummy is a nurse. She looks after poorly children. The words circulate and embed themselves. Jealousy meets pride and the two emotions, which at first seem to point in opposite directions – I both want my mummy to be saving these poorly children and I really don’t want to share her – collide. More emotions build up, I am simultaneously happy and sad about the Mother’s other existence.

In conversations, the deep moving ones, the ones that put a course correction on our lives we often walk smack bang into these contradictions. For example, you find yourself listening to someone relaying something that it difficult to hear and whilst you are terribly uncomfortable with the listening, you appreciate being the chosen one who is trusted enough to hear.

Hearing great stories of resilience, humbly told, we realize how small our own achievements really are

Just this week I felt the shock hit through my chest as I reflected upon a recent conversation. I pride myself on my resilience, my insistence on loving my life, my determination to appreciate and be grateful for that which I have. The sensation that I felt in my chest, the shock, reminded me how many other, incredibly resilient people there are out there who don’t have things as easy as I do, who don’t have the same levels of support around them, who don’t have a strong foundation of a loving family, who have no anchor, but at the same time are carrying much heavier responsibilities.

And yet, at the same time, that conversation was a dialogue not a monologue. I had earnt that conversation by being me, by trusting, by listening, by being open to a reality that is not so splendidly shiny as we sometimes imagine life should be.

Occasionally someone walks through my life and in the process of assimilating their story, which is not just a moment of listening, but involves deeper reflection and awareness, I am changed. Conversation redirect my thinking. It’s a two-way game. Being heard gives me the confidence to take a step forward. Listening teaches me where to take that step.

A friend who listens reflects my voice back towards me

The more people we encounter and converse with like this, the more stories we immerse ourselves in, the more complex our vision of the world becomes. Through such challenging conversation we can, if we chose, begin to learn what we sound like. It’s not always easy listening. I frequently get the difficult things wrong and have to adjust the acoustics. Time and time again I say the wrong things in the wrong moments, but I know that if I keep adjusting, keep subduing the need to defend myself from every uncertain whisper, then I learn. If you are lucky, you spend your life adjusting the acoustics of you own voice.

Voices after all aren’t found, they are grown.