I Quite Like Small Talk, Thank You Very Much
There’s a brilliant scene between Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and Doc from Fraggle Rock in A Muppet Family Christmas that goes like this:
Ernie: “Oh, hi there. We’re Ernie and Bert.”
Doc: “Well, hi there yourself. I’m Doc.”
Bert: “Did you know that the word Doc starts with the letter D?”
Doc: “Why, yes.”
Ernie: “Yes. Yes starts with the letter Y.”
Ernie: “And true starts with the letter T!”
Doc: “Hey, what is this?”
Bert: “Where we come from, this is small talk.”
That’s what I want to talk about today, small talk. I’m consistently amazed by how many people claim to hate small talk. They find it intolerable. They say there’s nothing worse. Some people even say on dating sites that anyone who’s going to engage in small talk should swipe left. I just don’t understand.
When I was in college, I took a meteorology class. On the first day, the professor asked us to say why we were taking the class. I said I wanted to be a better conversationalist. The teacher laughed and asked me where I was from. I said Connecticut and he proceeded to explain why Connecticut’s weather is so unpredictable. (I don’t remember the details, but it has to do with how the Jet Stream and the Gulf Stream meet and interact here.) We were engaging in small talk.
Weather is a big part of small talk in Connecticut, and throughout New England. Just last night at work, three different people asked me about the weather. All three turned into pleasant little conversations. And that’s the first reason I like small talk. It can lead to more. None of the conversations were particularly deep, but they helped solidify the bonds of friendship I have with my coworkers.
The next two reasons I like small talk are closely related. One is that engaging in small talk is friendly. Friendliness is an important virtue. Without friendliness, without small talk, we’d never make any meaningful connections. The other is that not engaging in small talk is rude. It’s off-putting when someone just barges into a conversation. No one can just dive into real, deep, and meaningful conversations. We have to work up to it. Exchanging pleasantries is a good way to do that.
Similarly, small talk acts as a social lubricant. Like it or not, we live in a society. Being in a society, we have to deal with other people. It happens all the time that we find ourselves in contact with strangers or people we barely know. All of those interactions would be incredibly awkward without small talk.
Finally, small talk, when done well, can be a lot of fun. There’s an art to small talk. It’s not just asking about someone’s family. It’s listening to the response and responding to the response and so on. There’s a rhythm to it. It’s almost musical. Like music, it’s plain fun to create something with other people.
Like I said earlier, I just don’t get people who hate small talk. Maybe they’re no good at it. Or maybe they want to be unfriendly and rude. I hope they see the light sooner rather than later. Whether it’s talking about the first letters of words or the weather or your families, small talk is for everyone. You could almost say it’s what makes the world go round.