Tag Archives: work

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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Homelessness Part I: Consciousness

The other night at work, while preparing to do a sweaty and rushed bin run outside the urban gutters of Melbourne Central, a work friend ‘G’ and I conceived a plan to drop off an untouched tub of rice to any one of the resident homeless campers of the complex (our goodie bag also included beef, mild salsa and suspicious Mexican beans). We dashed off with benevolence in our bones, giggling even, ‘what a thing to do on an otherwise boring work night!’ ‘why didn’t we think of this before?!’

To our surprise we could not locate a single one of the day-time homeless folk to be seen, even after a thorough lap of the whole block or two. ‘How strange,’ we sighed, exasperated already (the little expedition was not going as had been enthusiastically planned), ‘where could they be?’ Where could they be indeed? Unfortunately not much thought was devoted to this (very important) question before our minds were conveniently occupied by distractions of having to get back to the shop, the pressures of time, the lone team member waiting for us to return. The heavy bags of food weighed heavy disappointment in our hands.

It wasn’t until later that weekend that I came back to this question, and the uncomfortable actuality of that question: that the routines of the homeless, that we presumed to know so well in their constancy, were not so constant after all. The irony wasn’t lost on us. Though the homeless are easily disregarded (literally) day-to-day when it is unpalatable or simply inconvenient to devote attention to their plight; when we deigned to seek them out, we expected them to be there, and so were suitably shocked when they weren’t.

The fact is this: there is no physical human presence that we consciously or subconsciously ignore more. It’s a curious relationship we have with beggars on the street, one that we certainly endeavour to avoid in public and private discussion. It might not even be a real, interpersonal relationship between two people in the way that we know it, the beggar and those who pass her. In our society, out of all the different ‘categories’ of people – presidents, CEOs, paralympians – the homeless are probably the one kind most people go through an entire lifetime without ever having an actual conversation with.

So what does a recognition of homelessness in our lives actually require? Those who are brave enough to stomach the reality – and not just airbrush it into the background of our privileged, ever busy lives – might duly and admirably commit to soup kitchens and community projects. But how about the rest of us? Are we already culturally and psychologically sensitized to ignore them? Or do we consciously acknowledge it and toss them our spare change when we can? Are some people more sensitive than others to the presence and plight of the homeless?

For starters, I wonder if it is necessary to feign ignorance of the less unfortunate in order to carry on with our lives as we know it – as educated, middle-class, students/professionals who have made a way of life for ourselves – these people on the edge of the road are the anomalies who exist outside of the world that we have created for ourselves and live in. This is fairly easy to debunk: most would agree that recognition of homelessness and first world comfort are not mutually exclusive concepts: we can accept the reality that 105,000 Australians live on the street on any given night when we ourselves revel in relative luxury every night. However, this reality does become relegated to – where it remains – the personal and collective subconscious. If local impoverishment was at the forefront of our minds all the time, we wouldn’t be able to make personal shopping decisions daily without second thought, and certainly wouldn’t be able to carry on with our lives without being crippled with the heaviness of global suffering levels.

I’ll be the first to admit that it takes a certain effort to genuinely care about the homeless. There is a huge difference between being concerned about the hardships of the homeless in an abstract, community-social problem way, and actually going out of your way to engage with one on your many travails during the school  or work day. And not doing the latter is not always an indicator of our unwillingness to care about those less fortunate – the seminal Joshua Bell social experiment points out the difficulties we have in paying attention to our immediate surroundings when our minds are far away. But it is undeniably very difficult for most socialised individuals to willingly initiate conversation, or even respond to the entreaties of a homeless person without experiencing the squirmish desire to get away.

Why is this? One factor I would suggest is the public eye: it seems like in any unwarranted interaction, the homeless person and I become centre-stage actors on a stage where our dialogue, ‘please help’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ become unwelcomely amplified, and passersby look on in vaguely concealed discomfort and relief. Another factor is the immediate association with mental illness – and this is not an unfounded assumption at all. Recent RMIT studies found that 15 per cent of people had a mental illness before becoming homeless, and 16 per cent developed a mental illness after becoming homeless. That makes roughly 30% of the homeless population sufferers of mental disorder. Obviously socio-economic and health factors play a primary role in homelessness, but that doesn’t stop us from setting a mental barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’, helped along by allusions of psychosis. Of course, the last factor is sheer stinginess. Frugality can be explained by any set of values; most commonly being the ‘Every man for himself’ mentality, that everyone has to fight for his/her own survival, and some will inevitably fall between the cracks.

So clearly, the choice to care is not restricted to character, but rather personal consciousness. Being conscious of a person or situation (especially one that is troubling or compelling) makes demands on our attention, energy and conscience, it divests us of the choice not to care. And once we care, we find that we cannot not care.

So the simple message to take away from this? There is nothing simple about homelessness, but if you find that there is something beneath the simple brush-off we are all well-practiced in that stirs up a flurry of discomfort, it may be that the half-conscious, half-obliviousness you afford the homeless needs sorting out.

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