The company I worked for when I first came to Chicago – where I worked for over 16 years – would occasionally bring in guest speakers and hold seminars for the staff. Sometimes, the topic was relatively serious and professional (e.g., Myers-Briggs Type Indicator testing). Other times, the topic was relatively frothy. On one of the latter occasions, we enjoyed a day-long seminar on Etiquette.
Yes, Etiquette. The woman who ran the show that day possessed an exhaustive knowledge of how one should conduct oneself in a wide variety of social settings. Given our identity as a company that dealt in high-end business with high-end people at high-end venues, the emphasis that day was on professional conduct at business-related functions, but we also touched upon general rules of conduct that might serve us well in any formal setting.
If you’ve dined with me any time recently, I’m sure you’ll agree that I’ve retained absolutely nothing I might have heard that day.
There was a particular moment I want to describe in more detail. At some transitional point in the day’s seminar, our guest speaker put out a question to the assembled group: “Who here likes small talk?” Well, my hand immediately shot up. Heck yeah, bring it on! Sounds like a party to me! I then looked around and realized that NO ONE else in the room had raised their hand. I had missed an important undertone in our speaker’s voice, which was that she’d meant her question rhetorically. She had, in retrospect, asked her question with a subtext of, “Ewww – small talk! EVERYBODY hates small talk!”
The people in the room who knew me well immediately cracked up because, well, because they knew I was being completely honest. The incident put our speaker in the tricky position of trying to explain to the group – and to me – that small talk was OF COURSE something to be avoided in any polite social context. I offered no argument then, but I’d like to offer one now.
Basically, I think the notion of some sort of universal disdain for small talk is the height of phoniness and hypocrisy, because from where I sit, just about everybody does it. In fact, I think the majority of human conversation fits comfortably within the definition of small talk. And that’s not a bad thing, not at all. It’s how we get to know each other. It’s how we let people know how we’re feeling that day, and it’s how we find out how others are feeling without prying.
I do feel, though, that a distinction needs to be made between Small Talk and Pointless, Wearying Talk. No one wants to be caught in the middle of the latter. It’s the stuff that nightmares and early party exits are made of.
So here’s to small talk. And if you need any additional proof of how much we universally value it, I have one suggestion: Log into Facebook and see what your friends are talking about today – and what you’re saying back to them. I come not to bury small talk but to praise it. I’ll stop now. Talk amongst yourselves.