Large Talk

small-talk-graphic“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?”

Silence.

I have to learn to stay small.

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11 Comments

Filed under Anxiety, Apologies, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Pain, Thoughts, Words

11 responses to “Large Talk

  1. I like your comparison of small vs. large talk … and it is nice when you meet someone and the talk has a depth to it, beyond simply mentioning weather, sports, news. Also , I really like your questions about paleo-parties … too bad your questions didn’t inspire food for thought and lead to an interesting conversation.

    • dmarshall58

      You know, I didn’t mean to criticize small-talkers so vividly. It’s a dubious skill, but it’s also one I envy on some level. At the very least, I’d love to elude those awkward moments when I turn conversations in unwelcome ways. I’d love to really communicate with everyone, to learn all I could from every perspective I encounter. It’s frustrating when–for a million reasons–I can’t.

      Thanks for your comment. –D

  2. I totally relate! (am leaving a *small* comment to prove that I can)

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks… I so hoped someone would understand. I didn’t want to have the online equivalent of an awkward comment! I appreciate your comment and visit. –D

  3. I’ve learned a bit about handling small talk from my daughter. We used to call her “trout face” when little, giving you some indication of her public persuasion. In maturity she has developed an enigmatic smile/awareness in public. Small talk still not within the “code of her weather”. Entirely at her own chosen moment, she comfortably inserts an inciteful comment expecting no reply.
    She now dazzles people.
    They are also a little afraid of her….

    • dmarshall58

      My son is a scary and dazzling talker too. From the beginning, he seemed to understand the social aspect of conversation but has learned to exploit that awareness to disarm people and draw them out. I don’t like it when he uses it on ME, but I like to watch him in social situations.

      Is it odd for me to envy my offspring? Maybe that’s a subject for another blog post? Thanks for commenting–I always love seeing your name here. –D

  4. “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.” <–wonderfully observed & written!

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you. Part of me wonders how he might feel about characterized this way. I suspect he wouldn’t mind. He might even like it. But I’m not going to alert him to this post!

      I hope you’re enjoying some summer. –D

  5. “I wonder about paleo-parties. Do you think early humans talked about their diets?”

    If they couldn’t laugh at that ….their loss.

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks. That comment is really part of a broader aspect of humanity that bothers me. Are we invariably self-conscious (as a fundamental aspect of our nature) or is self-consciousness encouraged by the advertising and virtual where we spend so many hours?

      That’s something I’ll be sure to bring up at the next party I attend. Won’t THAT make everyone comfortable. –D

  6. Hmmm. I suppose I’m a bit of both — small and large — but unfortunately in an awkward way. I can strike up a conversation with anybody (and I mean anybody), yet I always seem to ultimately alienate the listener with some subject matter that may seem too personal, or too odd. Then again, would you have expected anything less from me? 🙂

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