When Small Talk Isn’t Small At All

Not all small talk is excruciating.

Recently a friend stopped drinking for a month. Normally gregarious and sociable, she confided that her month without alcohol was fine, except, “I had no patience, none at all, for small talk.” Another friend just posted a fascinating article by David Roberts on Facebook (“Why Small Talk Is So Excruciating”) with the comment: “A must read for anyone who (like yours truly) flies into a miserable panic when faced with casual social interactions.”

I’m one of that tribe.

Roberts’ article in Vox has me reviewing my whole history with small talk. My scorn as a teenager for those who engaged in trivial conversations (read suburban, read bourgeois, read my mother, read “The world it is a-changing and you’re talking about the weather?”). My later recognition that I was abysmally bad at small talk. My tendency at parties to corner some hapless victim and talk about something really important for far too long. (I still do that.) My surprise when I lived in Germany for several years that I actually loved engaging in small talk in a foreign language. My chagrin, after I returned to the U.S., at finding myself still abysmally bad at social chitchat in English. My recognition as a professor that insecurity fueled my social unease: I’m better at small talk when I’m in a position of some authority, or talking to someone who’s more nervous than I am. My complete inability to “network” at gatherings of writers.

In small talk, according to Roberts, who also hates it, “the communication of ideas or information is secondary, almost incidental; the speech is mainly meant to serve the purpose of social bonding. It asks and answers familiar questions, dwells on topics of reliable comity, and stresses fellow feeling rather than sources of disagreement.”

Roberts’ research on small talk made me think of a recent dinner with my brother, whom I would describe as relentlessly casual. Even when we were getting along well, our phone conversations were always short. “What’s up?” I’d start, because that’s the way he talked. “Not much,” he’d say, because that’s what he always said, and really pretty much believed. It was good when my husband was there for our rare get-togethers in person, so they could talk about sports. Sports talk is a form of male social bonding, Roberts observes, that can defuse potential conflict. “Sporting events are a simulation of conflict with no serious consequences, yet they generate enormous amounts of specific information. They are a content generator for small talk, easing the work of communion.” I once worked for a female science editor at a publishing house who engaged in sports talk with male authors and colleagues, and was amazed at how it greased the wheels of communication. (I still couldn’t muster much interest in football or baseball or basketball. Maybe that’s why I went back to college for my Ph.D., reentering a tribe with many members who lack social skills. Not all, just the ones I hung out with.)

The dinner at a restaurant with my brother last month was an important one. Our widowed mother died of Lewy Body dementia in 2013. While she had dementia, my brother was handling her finances, and he had her change her will. He’d just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, which he used as leverage. After she died, he refused to let me see her financial records. After some phone calls where we shrieked at each other (“You’re not my sister anymore,” he said once), we pretty much stopped speaking to each other, beyond terse emails concerning our mother’s estate. This summer, I suggested that we meet at our parents’ grave back East. (I live on the West Coast, he lives in the Midwest, neither of us had ever been there.) I was surprised that he agreed. When we had dinner together, my brother and his wife, my husband and I, it had been five years since we’d seen each other in person.

I don’t know what I hoped we’d talk about, but my brother was never one to talk about feelings, or the recent past, or the distant past, and we didn’t. Except for some information about the status of his cancer at the very end of the meal (still terminal but he feels OK), it was pretty much all small talk. But the atmosphere was warm and convivial. I knew he’d driven 900 miles to be there. It was more than a ceasefire, more than a truce. We’ll resume our occasional phone calls now, maybe more than occasional. And emails signed “Love.”

Roberts describes small talk as “speech that prioritizes social function. Think of this exchange: ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Oh, pretty good.’ There’s not zero semantic content in there—presumably ‘pretty good’ excludes ‘dying at this exact moment,’ so that’s some information. But the primary function of those speech acts is social, not to say something but to do something, i.e., make contact, reaffirm shared membership in a common tribe (whatever it may be), express positive feelings (and thus lack of threat), show concern, and so forth. These are not unimportant things, not ‘small’ at all, really, but they are different from communicating semantic content.”

I’ll call my brother and say, “How’s it going?”

He’ll answer, “Oh, pretty good.” And I’ll know he’s not dying yet, and that we’ve reaffirmed our family bond.

No small thing.

Jacqueline Doyle’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, The Rumpus, Full Grown People, The Manifest-Station, and Electric Literature. She lives with her husband and son in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay.

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