Our Lives

It might be small talk, but it’s necessary

CorrespondentApril 20, 2013 


Dennis Wilhelm.


I have never gotten the hang of small talk. I can do it, but I am rarely comfortable with it. I don’t exactly regret this. Sometimes I’m almost proud of it.

Whenever someone asks me how I am, I have to remind myself that it is not an actual question. It’s just sign-countersign. How are you, Dennis? I’m good, how are you? That’s all anyone expects.

Taken seriously, the question is difficult, or much more than difficult. Because how am I, at this exact moment? What do I think of my life right now? Where am I? Where do I want to be? Does the good outweigh the bad? Am I happy? Am I content?

Small talk isn’t meant to force anyone into stunned introspection. The whole point is that you don’t think about it. And you shouldn’t. If you do, you notice how terribly mechanical it is.

I understand the purpose of all this mindless banality. We express friendliness to one another through conversation, and sometimes there isn’t anything to say. Small talk overcomes this problem, eliminating silence that might lead to suspicion and resentment.

We make small talk because we don’t have tails to wag.

Small talk saves us from the pressure to be interesting. Because, except for brief flashes, most of us aren’t. It protects us from excessive intellectual and emotional demands. Can you imagine what life would be like if everything that anyone said was honest and meaningful? Humans aren’t built for that. We need shallowness, of which small talk is an abundant source.

Small talk has undoubtedly prevented many murders, divorces and other social calamities by giving people something to talk about besides what is really on their minds. It protects us. To one degree or another, we all depend on that protection.

The protection, however, comes at a cost. It protects us the way a fence does. It blocks unpleasant intrusions, and we’re grateful, but sooner or later we want to step outside the boundaries. Then we’re surprised to discover how difficult this is.

Not at all infrequently, I have thought about conversations I’ve had, and wished I’d said a little less. Not that I’d said anything hurtful or outrageous, but my goodness, Dennis, was it really necessary to tell that story? Did you have to go into so much detail? Then I regret that I hadn’t availed myself of the protection small talk provides.

Far more often, though, the opposite has happened, and I find myself wishing I’d said more. Not in any particular conversation, but I’ll look back on all the interactions I’ve had with some specific person – maybe someone I like quite a lot – and realize that almost all our discussions have been about food or work or how hard it is to find a parking space. Throwaway talk. It doesn’t invalidate a friendship, but it’s sad. That stuff won’t be remembered.

What I do remember are those moments when small talk gives way to large talk. They happen unpredictably, but with a definite rhythm, almost like slow, cautious circling. One person says something, and then a pause. Then the other person says something, and then a pause. And then...

For some reason it seems to help if people are tired. Not sure why this is. The easy and the obvious may require more effort than we think.

Perhaps we have to constantly restrain ourselves from talking about what really concerns us. When our energy is low, we aren’t able to do that, and the pressure within us becomes too much to bear, and we let loose with our humanity.

But that only happens every once in a while. For day to day interaction, the wise person sticks with small talk. It’s safe, and convenient, and what everyone expects. And if you don’t think about it, it is sometimes quite pleasant.

Nice weather we’ve been having. How about those Tar Heels?


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