Conversations That Don’t Matter: Dissecting Small Talk

Imagine this. You’ve just gotten home from working nine hours straight inside the sweaty dungeon of a fast food restaurant, and immediately thrown yourself at your computer screen, attempting to soak in lectures and notes until well past 3am. You fall out of bed at 7am, stumbling to the station in a somatic haze, wishing you had a third tap in the bathroom for coffee. You spot the final remaining seat on the train, and make a beeline for it. But not so fast – your friend from way-back-in-high-school-who-you-never-talked-to-except-on-train-rides appears in your line of vision. You divert for a  second, Hi-it’s-been-so-long, and try to assess whether time lapsed in greeting has been long enough to abandon the encounter yet. You realise that both of you are too polite to take the one seat left. You end up making small talk standing up, on four hours sleep, for forty minutes straight. Your eyelids hate your mouth.*

This is an outstanding instance of when I vehemently commiserate with Jean-Paul Sartre that ‘Other people is hell‘ and silently wish for Harry’s Invisibility Cloak. Small talk is the arch-nemesis of the tired commuter who just wants to stare blankly out the window for those forty minutes. Born of cultural expectation, it is the unwanted scourge that interrupts meditative musings for the morning and near drives me into self-inflicted hermitude. That most skilful of arts requiring immense personal willpower and next-to-zero concentration, can leave you drained of conversational energy and convinced that all of humanity is a dreary, insufferable wasteland littered with workplace tales, annoying neighbours, and all the trivial details of everyday existence. Incremental, seemingly useful information but not quite entertaining or anecdotal. But on the other hand, it can keep you up to date with the minutiae of every single person’s life that you know, and lets you off the hook when you’re experiencing an extended brain fart. It is excruciating yet easy, gives us so much information about a person yet tells us nothing.

So why the love-hate relationship with small talk? Why the Herculean effort, the trauma, the briefly intoxicating delight of light-hearted wordplay? Well, to the average sociable human, small talk straddles that awkward line of familiarity. It asks you to define the halfway point between not knowing someone at all and knowing someone really well. And this is something that is increasingly difficult to distinguish, as Facebook flattens our friendship strata into two categories: Friend or Unfriend. That you’re even entering into Small Talk Territory is a good sign that the Small Talkee in question is important enough to not ignore (if you could get away with it), yet clearly not important enough for Big Talk.

The seasoned Small Talker approaches topics with mindless strategy, often unknowingly under the indoctrination of far-reaching social mores. Small talk topics like work, study, the weather, and recent injuries are perfect generators of lukewarm enthusiasm, and provide for ample conversational ground to cover the next time you have the misfortune to coincidentally meet. Topics of depth, controversy or taboo are not welcome. I like to imagine the ancient native bumping into his wife’s friend while fishing for carp by the stream, and having to listen and respond to her unwitty banter until his family’s dinner is caught. Poor man would probably rather impale himself with his own spear.

Once all topics of discussion have been exhausted, the imagination curve either transmits frenetic activity, where you go on to have the most wacky/deep and meaningful conversation ever, or it crashes. The greatest difficulty to gauge in such situations is whether the other person is as plagued by the hatred and discomfort of small talk (sometimes I worry that there are actually people who only ever have conversations that comprise of this). Telling signs are avoidance of eye contact, hasty excuses to leave and lastly, a complete breakdown of syntactical accuracy.

The severity of boredom unsurprisingly varies according to condition. Small talk in times of peace differs dramatically from small talk during personal crisis. In the lull of contentment – emotions are neither peaking nor plummeting – we really have to reach inwards to pull out the stuff of conversation, keep the ball in their field, and meanwhile our tongues dry up like reptile skin in the desert. Entertainment level: -5000.

In desperation, I like to turn to food, my trusty last resort.

A: My boyfriend took me to this really classy restaurant last night. We had baked shrimp with lemon-garlic butter sauce and braised salmon, overlooking the Sydney Harbour.

C: Oh, wow. That sounds real romantic. And I do love well-done fish. (I wish I had a boyfriend. Should I tell her about my microwave dinner last night?)

A: Yeah, fish is really so delicious. It’s the source of life. The um, fountain of life. (Thumb-twiddling)

C: Fish! Hurhurhur…fish is good very so. It…makes much PROTEIN!!! (nervous laughter)

A: I like toothpaste. Do you like toothpaste? (Complete break down)

It’s when we seek refuge from our own mundane captivity, only to be descended upon by more banality personified on the train ride home or at a Christmas party, that makes you decide: No. I’ve had quite enough of small talk. From now on, to the next person I see, I’m going to start talking about three-legged anteaters and Why Gandhi Was Killed and hummus dip. To hell with talking for the sake of talking.

*True story.

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