Beyond Small Talk

Seen for what it is, small talk is an imprisonment of false bonhomie and an utter failure of communication. But, seen for what it could be, small talk can be an opportunity to step beyond the banal and everyday into the hidden terrain of another’s world.

But such an imperative can be intimidating, and can seem overwhelming. As a result; we may withhold talking about anything beyond the weather, where we plan to travel next year, and how our job is faring because we fear that delving into the topics we care about – the scourge of war, our apocalyptic visions of climate change, or our fraying relationship with our parents – would scare other people away. We try to stay on safe ground but by remaining so safe, are boring. Our partner, doing the same thing, likely feels the same way.

But, small talk need not be verbal imprisonment (giving new meaning to the phrase ‘jail sentence’). It could, instead, become a stepping stone for deeper discussions. For example:

‘What do you do for work’ can lead to deeper questions such as:

  • Why did you choose that career? What makes it fulfilling?
  • We both work fulltime, if money wasn’t an issue, what would you be doing instead?
  • If you could go back and pick another career, what would it be? What do you want to give to the world?

‘Did you see the news stories about the floods’ can lead to deeper questions such as:

  • Does climate change frighten you? Do you ever wish you could do more to stop it?
  • It’s very disempowering seeing footage of events we can do nothing to change. What do you think?
  • Have you noticed how hard it is for opposing groups such as climate change activists and deniers to find common ground and speak to each other?

There are ways of broaching any topic that can be banal or unique, trite or meaningful. We can have dull conversations about death, and engaging conversations about rainbows; what matters is how deep we are willing to go, how far beyond the safe we are willing to venture.

While we may loathe small talk, to a significant extent, the onus is on us to push the conversation further. While we may feel trapped, it is highly unlikely that our partner in conversation really wishes to continue talking about the price of apples, or why Savoys are superior to Jatz biscuits. They certainly want to talk about the titillations of their mind and the depths of their heart, they may just need a little push in that direction and an assurance that they are in safe company to do so. Perhaps we could start…

The skilled conversationalist can see a goldmine of information hidden in the most ordinary of observations. If handled correctly, a comment about poor drivers on the road can lead to fruitful discussions about expectations of others, and an observation about the beauty of thunderstorms may provide fertile ground for discussions about the perverse charm of destruction. The point is that an observation, basically any observation, if we are paying attention, can be a stepping stone to another proximate thought in the other’s mind.

We all want to move towards intimacy and sincerity. Small talk is the keyhole through which we glimpse what lies beyond in the room of another’s mind. It will remain perilous insofar as we assume conversation has to end there; but if we see it as a necessary and first step in the journey to deeper communion, then small talk won’t feel mind-numbing anymore.

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