Small Talk, Big Ideas

 

 

People are saying a lot these days—most of it superficial—about small talk. How we miss it, after our year of solitude; how to do it gracefully; how it glues our society together.

Personally, I have always hated the stuff. Small talk is designed to smooth over awkwardness and allow us to chat pleasantly with strangers—yet nothing feels more awkward to me, or less pleasant. The weather is only interesting if it is so dramatic, we should be chatting in a basement without windows. My only sport is dog walking. We forgot to have kids, so I cannot pull out my phone to show pictures. Except of the dog. Which, unless I am chatting with another dog lover, guarantees the end of the conversation.

I like big talk. Sweeping discussions of why we are on this planet and what we should do to fix it. I want people to explain bits of the world to me or, better yet, pull back the curtain so I can peer inside their soul. Mine is already wide open, and surely there is something in there more captivating than a partly cloudy forecast. We are not promised tomorrow, I want to hiss at the chitchatters. We are here together, right now, and we can compare notes, figure out this whole mess.

“If afterwards I know nothing more about you than I knew before,” psychologist Matthias Mehl told a writer for Psyche, “then that will be small talk.” Think of all the innocuous remarks you have batted back and forth with strangers or acquaintances, all those carefully not-too-personal compliments and bland inquiries about the mundane. What did you take away, carefully stowed in an inside pocket, to reexamine or smile about later? Not much, I would wager. I prefer the people who blurt out cryptic philosophy in the elevator or offer some startlingly wise, tender remark in the loo.

After a year of isolation and masks and painfully self-conscious Zooms, though, a tiny flame of nostalgia flickers. Not for obligatory small talk at contrived social occasions, benefits and awards ceremonies and such, but for spontaneous exchanges, however trivial, in long lines and waiting rooms, or at the dairy case when I cannot reach the cream. Masks stifled that natural sociability—having your spittle fly back and smear your own face is disconcerting, and it is hard to read somebody’s tone from their forehead.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review warns of the real casualty of working from home: Employees are no less productive, but they are definitely less creative. Casual office chitchat made people feel more friendly, energized, uplifted, grateful, seen. Granted, small talk could be a distraction, but those who were adept at reading other people managed to chat without losing focus. And, the authors found, “conversations didn’t have to be intimate or lengthy to deliver benefits.”

I think back on those moments, the physicality of them, sipping the first coffee of the day together and trading takes on a new donut shop or bitching about the geese parading across the parking lot at their own lackadaisical pace. Sometimes I wiggled away and fled for my office, unable to understand how people could happily kill twenty minutes comparing notes on the quirks of the coffee maker. At other times, a soft golden light fell around us, as some tiny detail revealed virtues I had never dreamed my coworker possessed.

The small talk helped us remember we were human, and we were in this together. That made somebody in an alien department like accounting seem approachable. Aimless, casual talk eased us, grumpy and half awake, into Monday morning meetings. Snippets of chitchat at least made sure we remembered one another’s names—and that made it a whole lot easier to brainstorm on committees.

I have been too hard on poor little small talk, which, now that I think about it, is heroic, easing transitions and smoothing acquaintance. Small talk equalizes us, flying back and forth between executives and clerks, maintenance staff and corporate counsel. Without these sallies, researchers have found that those in charge speak far more than those receiving direction.

Small talk lets us be small, relaxed and humble, with a grumbling tummy or a car in need of service. We are not trying to dazzle when we talk about the weather. We are only orienting ourselves, sending out a little energy, noticing the response. Small talk is a simple courtesy, a curtsy that acknowledges someone else’s presence. And without acknowledgment, how could we move on to collaboration?

When the pandemic blocked this smooth runway, companies threw tech at the problem. Soon there were virtual lounges, video-chat roulettes to encourage networking, an app called Water Cooler for scheduled impromptu interactions. (And yes, that is an oxymoron.) The problem with these engineered interactions is the problem with any scheduled fun: The weight of expectations crushes spontaneity’s delicate gifts. Combine an AI prompt to interact spontaneously with the limited emotional information available to us on screens, and you do not have the atmosphere created when people lean on an office doorway or plop down in your guest chair to share an idle thought. Their interruption may be a brief inconvenience, but they are there because they want to be—not because the two of you have been engineered to meet.

How could I have objected with such ferocity to a chat about the weather? In this fragmented world, we need to remember the stuff we all share. Little talk is not as shallow as I thought; only its tech surrogates make it mechanical. Let me try again, I beg the universe. I promise not to harden my heart or roll my eyes.

The conversion, alas, is brief. As I read the Harvard Business Review instructions for online small talk, my loathing seeps back: “Managers and employees alike should be careful not to let social conversations take a negative turn. Small talk should be polite, surface level, and focused on neutral topics, like the weather, sports, and TV shows.” God forbid anyone say something radically honest, deep, or emotionally charged. No religion, no politics, no talk of romantic relationships. In other words, nothing about what you believe, how power operates, or who you love.

“Another thing to avoid is excessive self-disclosure,” the writers continue. “If someone asks, ‘How are you?’ it’s ill-mannered to rant about your bad day.”

Is it? Do you know anyone who would mind? The more honest we are about how hard life is, the easier those miseries are to bear.

The problem may not be how small our talk is, but how low we set the bar. We do not trust other people with what we hold essential. Skittish as deer, we run from any encounter that might require honesty. Instead, we lean on a script, keeping the conversation banal and predictable.

Basecamp, which makes productivity software, just banned politics from any conversation that takes place on a work platform. Coinbase did the same. Yet I used to love knock-down drag-out fights with a colleague, equally cheerful and 180 degrees from me on the political spectrum. We are friends to this day.

And what is the biggest problem in today’s politics? The inability to communicate across the aisle. Our legislators, too, have lost small talk; they do not socialize outside their bubbles. They are understandably terrified to talk about the weather; that, too, is now political.

But even a script would be better than silence.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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