“Small talk” is a strange term for conversation intended to put people at ease. The terrain seems too expansive to be comfortable to me—what can you say about where you work, your education, or even tomorrow’s weather that’s small in any way?
“Do you like living in Chicago?” someone asks.
“Do you have an hour to discuss my mixed emotions?” I reply.
So, okay, maybe I’m just bad at keeping small talk small. If you ask me how I feel about something or what something is like or where I call home, I’m likely to fumble for what to say because, despite being prepared with a reliable answer, I can’t help thinking you really do want to know. And that means my answer is complicated, always complicated.
Those good at small talk manage to amuse while offering little. The friend I consider the greatest master of the art deflects every inquiry that penetrates more than a centimeter. He volleys like a tennis pro and wrong-foots listeners with spontaneous laughter and faux intimacies. He says nothing substantial, and everyone who meets him walks away a. liking him greatly and b. learning little. He likes to talk small.
Small talk, he says, is personality sampling. You communicate yourself. Content is irrelevant. If people believe they know you, it’s because they see how you talk and how you think. Possibly, they know nothing, but belief matters. They meet, they think, a genuine you.
Men seem to be the smallest talkers. We expect other men to avoid emotion and speak sports. In the absence of a postage stamp of common territory, we generally meet there. I know enough about baseball, basketball, or football to understand the language, but, when I turn the conversation to running—the only athletics I sincerely care about—small talk founders. My conversation mate’s face says I’m teaching.
And teaching isn’t small.
I live for the moments talk goes large. From my perspective, the unlikely reunion of strangers offers a precious opportunity for anonymous confession. We might get to discuss what these small talk questions mean, what they imply about human interaction and where and how we protect ourselves.
At one of my wife’s work parties, someone wanted to know whether students had changed in all the years I’ve been teaching, and we wandered into discussing nostalgia and the personally revealing nature of what we wish to believe about the past. We didn’t learn each other’s names, but if I ever saw her again, we could start just where we stopped when her husband joined us and started talking about the Bulls’ chances once Derrick Rose returns.
Because it’s modular and superficial, small talk can’t truly be interrupted. Mingling must be fluid. It requires elusiveness and suggests being no one. Large talk, in contrast, says you should be universal, human, real, vivid, and sincere… as anyone actual might be.
Unfortunately, I’m a failure as a decorative spouse or crowd-sweller. I misread when the desire for large talk is mutual and welcome. Instead of both parties venturing and returning important statements, I convince listeners I’m a little off. I console myself believing I’ve given them something to begin their next, smaller conversation, but mostly I’m awkward.
At a recent gathering, the topic turned to the paleo-diet, the eating plan that has people eat only what early humans might. I commented, as food was scarce, early humans would have to be omnivores and, if you left a case of Pepsi or an open bag of Cheetos, they’d consume it… so maybe, I suggested, we’re already on the paleo-diet.
Some people laughed, but then I said, “I wonder about paleo-parties. Do you think early humans talked about their diets? Do you think they had paleo-chit-chat?”
I have to learn to stay small.