I’m afraid of small talk. Someone had to say it. “How’s work?… It’s been forever… This weather…” You’ve heard it all before. The traumatic aeon held captive in the chair of a loquacious hairdresser; the slow motion car-crash that follows eye contact with a one-night-stand at the supermarket; family Christmas. I’m sure you’ve all survived similarly wince-inducing “chatty” ordeals, but my god – it’s been touch and go.
Luckily, a concerned colleague sent me some Harvard research suggesting that my aversion to small talk might be due to asking the wrong questions. Apparently, instead of settling for trite, tried-and-tested classics like “What do you do?” I should opt for more searching openers – ones that explore contexts beyond the familiar arena of pub chat fodder. So in the spirit of adventure, I went cold turkey and cut small talk out of my life.
My first step was drawing up a list of small talk reflexes to be banished.
1. ‘It’s been forever’
While this is often (unfortunately) not literally true, you have no other option than to agree, and then invariably overcompensate by forming elaborate plans to hang out every day for the following decade. “Forever?” It’s probably been about three weeks, and we didn’t have much to say to each other that time either.
2. ‘How’s work?’
Surely work is the last thing anyone should be thinking or talking about in social small talk. That anyone would want to spend their fleeting leisure time fixating on the details of this labour is insane to me. Oh, but you’re passionate about management consultancy? Good for you.
3. ‘The weather…’
A favoured staple of the English conversational diet. Although meteorological observations are inoffensive, it’s hard to avoid conversation collapsing into a harrowing re-run of a French oral exam e.g. During le weekend, do you also play football with your friends in the park?
4. ‘How are you?’
The cheek, the nerve, the gall, the audacity and the aggressiveness. What a terrifyingly intimate question. It reliably triggers paroxysms of anxiety, non-committal non-verbal grunts, and a search for the closest fire escape. Everyone will be relieved if you just say, “Yeah, not too bad,” which can reliably be interpreted as anywhere between euphoric and suicidal.
5. ‘Been busy?” / “What time are you on till?’
It’s genuinely impossible to ask a taxi driver either of these questions without the following up with the other. And so begins 45 minutes of feigned sympathy with the cabbie’s increasingly problematic political takes. You’ll remember your headphones next time.
As you might imagine, my list of banned phrases got quite long, and involved several shopping trips to the murky mind-palace of small talk misery… I shall spare you both the boredom and the second-hand trauma.
My next challenge: Replace the forbidden small talk crutches, with the questions (somewhat questionably) scientifically assessed to make me “better liked by conversation partners”. Yipee.
The Harvard Business Review kindly provided several examples from a psychologist to get the ball rolling. Unbound, I was finally emerging from Plato’s cave of small talk superficiality, and striding straight to work to test my new lines.
1. ‘What excites you right now?’
Not a great start. Maybe it was in my delivery. Maybe the wink was a bad idea. The wink was definitely a bad idea. Attempting this one again and receiving a confused answer realted to the weather – mission aborted. But according to the Harvard shrink, this question “gives others the ability to give with a work-related answer, or talk about their kids, or their new boat, or basically anything that excites them”. As very few of my friends have kids, none own boats and only a couple would admit they have ever been excited, I started to suspect that this study might not have been road teted in a pub.
2. ‘What are you looking forward to?’
Invariably this resulted in my conversation partner asking whether they were looking especially sad. “No, you don’t look sad, I just want to know what you’re looking forward to.” This wasn’t a great hit either – it gives slightly unhinged “I Can Save You” Energy, apparently. I tried to explain that they could just tell me about their weekend plans, but the damage was already done.
3. ‘Where did you grow up?’
Ask this anyone under 23 and they will respond blankly that they grew up “at home, I guess”. Ask this anyone over 23 and they think you are trying to commit credit card fraud.
4. ‘Is there a charitable cause you support?’
Jesus wept. This was met by widespread suspicion that I was about to shake them down for a donation of some sort. The more I protested I just wanted to know if they supported a charity, the less they believed me. Someone asked me if I was a Quaker, prompting a performatively longer coughing period. *cough cough
5. ‘Who is your favourite superhero?’
This one went down as well as you might’ve imagined: like a pint of warm phlegm. However, there was one American who genuinely opened up to this – cue a 15-minute conspiracy theory about a comic book creator called Jamie Hewlett who is secretly Banksy. Unfortunately, I suspect that a positive response from an American could be achieved with any of the questions on this list, limiting their use as data points in this particular sociological study.
Disheartened and having exhausted the psychologist’s suggestions, I started to wonder what the alternative to “small talk” actually looks like. Perhaps there are only two types of talk that can’t be deemed “small”: the emotionally draining and the pseudo-intellectual intolerable. On the former, there’s a time and a place for a deep chat about your feelings and spiritual wellbeing, but most of the time it feels toe-curlingly self-indulgent and is best saved for dogs, death-beds or paid professionals.
Then there’s the other sort of “deep” conversation about the grand metaphysical themes of existence. (The horror, the horror.) A chat that’s likely to yield zero answers, but comes with a non-zero risk of inflicting paralysing existential boredom on both participants. Anyone who’s met that person at a party knows both of these “deep” options are quantumly worse than surface-level chats about the weather, football or literally anything else.
But, my all time favorites are: ‘What are you reading?’ ‘Who is your favorite author?’ or ‘Which books can I find in your bookshelves?’
It appears I was too quick to judge small talk. Perhaps with my favorite questions, there’s a certain beauty in the preconscious verbal ping-pong that happens with these questions. People usually read. People care about books. And everyone else cares about the weather, and it changes all the time. In a nutshell, small talk is there for a reason – it has conventions, and conventions can be followed competently. Sure, small talk is cheap, but aren’t we all? And having endured this lengthy written testimony to the foolishness of deep talk, perhaps you too are convinced that small talk is the only talk worth talking. So, what are you reading?