| Spring, 2012

Small Talk

Not A Whisper

Scott Hutchison, Not A Whisper, 2004

I recently found myself sitting across a table from a stranger, chewing awkwardly in silence. It was a familiar scenario: a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop with not enough tables and me sitting alone, assenting readily when an older woman asked if she could share my premium slice of real estate. She sat down and we both began to eat, eyes studiously averted—quickly, the silence became unbearable. Lovely day out, isn’t it, she ventured. Oh yes, I agreed enthusiastically. Perfect temperature, and sunny too. Just beautiful. This was talk, yes, a verbal exchange between two interlocutors—but it was small talk.

The weather has a long-standing monopoly on the small talk market, and it’s not hard to see why. What we’re searching for in this kind of conversation is linguistic grease to oil the gears of social interaction. With acquaintances we can assume a certain shared pool from which to draw conversational topics, but with strangers about whom we know nothing, the weather is our old faithful, always ready to be enlisted in action. Of course, the perfect obviousness of the weather is why it’s also the ultimate sign of banality. Samuel Johnson famously observed in 1758 that “when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” And for the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, the art of interpretation was defeated in the face of Wettergespräche, weather-talk, with its endless repetitions of what has already been said or what needs no saying at all.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first appearance of the term “small talk” to eighteenth-century British Parliamentarian Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, a collection of pedagogical nuggets dispensing wisdom on a comprehensive range of topics, as befits a book with the subtitle “On the Fine Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman.” In a letter from 1751, Lord Chesterfield informs his son that “there is a sort of chit-chat, or smalltalk, which is the general run of conversation at courts, and in most mixed companies. It is a sort of middling conversation, neither silly nor edifying; but, however, very necessary for you to become master of.” At its best, he goes on, such talk turns on the public events of Europe, but more frequently it concerns subjects like the clothing of the troops of different princes, the marriages and relations of “considerable people” and the magnificence of balls and masquerades. It may have fallen from “sort of middling” to definitively small, but in the transition to its contemporary form—“Did you see Lady Gaga’s meat dress?”; “No way, they broke up?”; “Crazy party on Friday, huh?”—very little about small talk seems to have changed.

A little small talk before getting down to business is like washing your hands in preparation for a meal. But it can also be a filler that ends up consuming the entire conversation, an endless ritual of hand-washing in which no one actually gets to eat. We’ve all had them—exchanges of meaningful words strung together in well-formed sentences lasting multiple minutes in which, to borrow a line from “Singin’ in the Rain,” nothing has passed between us, just air. This aspect of small talk is undoubtedly the reason it earns our suspicion and contempt. Solicitous inquiries with no desire for an answer, self-evident observations running on a permanent cycle of rinse and repeat—it’s little wonder such discourse is associated with vapidity or falseness.

Exchanging small talk with people we’ve just met may be an unfortunate necessity, but with people we already know, it seems to suggest that they’re people to whom we have nothing to say. And yet if small talk is just talk that’s idle, insignificant and without stated purpose, then surely a substantial portion of the chatter that goes on between couples, friends and (or especially) families must count as small. Banality, however, need not always be insignificant. There’s nothing earth-shattering, usually, about missing the bus, what you ate for lunch or the new dress you just bought, but these are just the mundane tidbits that make up so much of the talk between intimates. In fact, such conversations about trivialities can arguably happen only with those close to us—only the members of our inner circle do we presume to burden with the minutiae of our lives.

Idle talk about inconsequential matters between friends may be divided into several varieties. There’s a notable species, for instance, that goes by the name “chewing the fat” or “shooting the breeze” (there is a variation of the latter for the more scatalogically inclined). This type of non-purposeful conversation, made up mostly of freewheeling banter, relies less on its subject matter than what you can do with it, and, usually, how amusing you can be while doing it. A kind of conversational scatting, the best breeze-shooters and fat-chewers can riff on any topic, the smaller the better—their virtuosity is displayed in the irrelevance of the subject matter to the rapier of their wit. “I love talking about nothing,” said the great talker Oscar Wilde. “It is the only thing I know anything about.”

Of course, as in all forms of speech, more is being communicated than just what is said. However inconsequential the things spoken, we’re also sizing each other up in the act of speaking. Gestures, facial expressions, postural shifts and places of pause are just a few of the examples Erving Goffman cites as communicative non-linguistic aspects of conversation. There is no doubt that we distinguish ourselves at least as much by the manner of our talking as by its content.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the phenomenon of small talk seems to receive interest today primarily from linguists interested in discourse analysis or pragmatics, and self-help gurus interested in improving your networking skills. The readership of the first camp, if you can believe it, is not large. The latter group is doing a little better: the go-to tome in this genre seems to be The Fine Art of Small Talk, by the conveniently named Debra Fine. She provides a helpful list of icebreakers you can memorize (but at your own peril, I have to note, since they include prompts like, “If you could replay any moment in your life, what would it be?”—a question that must surely count as at least “middling” talk). Another source of wisdom on this matter, a networking expert named Susan RoAne who, according to her website, is a Mingling Maven® and can teach you to be one too, advises adhering to the maxim: “Be bright. Be brief. Be gone.” The talent of ready utterance has long been a virtue, and in a way it wouldn’t be too hard to trace a line—sloping downward, for a number of reasons—from Lord Chesterfield’s epistolary advice to latter-day “conversation consultants” like the author of Goodbye to Shy, Leil Lowndes, who promises breezily to turn you from a “shy” to a “sure.”

Although a sometime topic of instruction, small talk, as is clear by its very name, possesses no great stature among the arts of conversation. No one, after all, aspires to banality. So we wield our scorn for vacuous chatter like a strand of garlic, warding off the contaminating musk of inauthenticity. The allegiance to high-mindedness and substance that most of us have carefully displayed at one time or another was summed up in a recent New Yorker cartoon depicting a dinner table in ancient Greece, where a father admonishes his son: “If you don’t have anything profound to say, don’t say anything at all.” It’s no coincidence that this cartoon is set in antiquity, at the birth of Western philosophy. As a group, philosophers have been the most vocal critics of empty chatter. It wouldn’t be hard, in particular, to imagine that dinner table scene taking place chez Martin Heidegger. His 1927 Being and Time offers an analysis of Gerede, translated as “idle talk,” which forms probably the best-known philosophical critique of this phenomenon.

Heidegger’s remarks arise in the context of an investigation into our everyday way of being. Let me report the results upfront: our everyday being is resoundingly inauthentic. Instead of a genuine self-relation, we allow ourselves in daily life to be determined by “das Man,” the neutral, impersonal “they”—not any particular person or group of people, but the murky, anonymous subject of formulas like “so they say” or “people often think.” “We enjoy ourselves and have fun the way they enjoy themselves. We read, see, and judge literature and art the way they see and judge … we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking.” At this point, no one will be surprised to discover that Heidegger wrote much of Being and Time while sequestered in a hut on the edge of the Black Forest.

“Idle talk,” correspondingly, is the inauthentic everyday mode of language, the indistinct chatter of anonymous “people” (the founders of Twitter knew what they were about when they named it). It shouldn’t be understood pejoratively, Heidegger is quick to claim, because idle talk is the first way that things are made intelligible to us, especially things we aren’t acquainted with or haven’t experienced ourselves. In addition to small talk, Gerede for Heidegger also includes forms of discourse we wouldn’t consider diminutive at all, such as those in academic philosophy departments. But what all statements of idle talk share, from platitudes about the weather to the free-will problem, is that they offer up their basic terms as already known, already understood, and in so doing make us forget to attend to the things themselves.

We become wrapped up instead in the idées reçues that circulate around the object, taking for granted what’s said about it, then repeating and disseminating these as self-evident truths that become ever more authoritative the more they’re repeated: “things are so because they say so.” Rede is speech, and Gerede is literally that which has been spoken, formulas and clichés with no author or origin, which we toss to one another like so many balls in a circle—Heidegger calls idle talk “gossiping, or passing the word along.” It’s not intentionally deceptive like, say, swiftboating, but in this vast social game of broken telephone, the results of all the passing along can be equally misleading. In contrast, the authentic mode of being of discourse is defined in terms of the “essential possibilities” of “keeping silent” and “reticence.”

“Passing the word along” certainly seems to constitute the major activity of 24-hour cable news networks, not to mention what passes as political analysis. With ever less centralized seats of authority and canons of legitimation, discourse may be believed against all evidence if it’s just repeated enough. Technology now circulates words and images at previously unimagined velocities, and if the internet has enabled everyone to have their say, it has also made it easier than ever to say less while speaking more. Think of all the linking, reposting and retweeting that make up so much of the chatter online, not to mention the status updates and IMs that have made us privy to previously unimagined banalities in each other’s lives (it turns out that we do presume to burden more than just intimates with our daily minutiae). More troubling is the fact that in a framework where everything is predigested and already-understood, comprehension is presumed to be a matter of course rather than something to be achieved after careful thought (if at all). Is it any surprise, then, that there seems to be less and less space for ideas that are demanding or difficult? And that such ideas increasingly seem, by virtue of their very difficulty, simply wrong?

Small talk in our daily lives may be far less insidious than the circulation of hearsay on Fox News, but for Heidegger both amount to idle talk or linguistic inauthenticity. Certainly the amount of recycling that goes on in small talk would make Greenpeace proud. Its stock in trade is the endless circulation of platitudes we don’t really mean and that themselves mean nothing—talk that’s suitable to everyone and distinctive of no one. Grammar may generate a near infinite set of sentences, but this doesn’t mean talk is novel in the same way. “We draw on a limited compendium of pat utterances,” Goffman reminds us. Make no mistake: small talk is idle talk, just a little smaller.

But the critique of the inauthenticity of our everyday speech may also provoke a distinct prick of discomfort. Idle talk encourages the public proliferation of the formulas that it passes around, Heidegger writes, because it encourages the idea that everyone can have access to the comprehension of everything. But the repertoire of pre-formulated sayings is also a common linguistic bank that affords us immediate access to public meanings. Talk that “anyone can snatch up” allows us to speak with facility in our everyday lives. If we had to rewrite Shakespeare every time we opened our mouths, it’s doubtful any words would come out.

Heidegger is not unaware of this. Everything that gets circulated in idle talk, all the pat formulas and conventional wisdoms, are just part of the “thrownness” (one of his most vivid neologisms) that defines the human condition: the fact that we always find ourselves thrown into an already-interpreted world. “All genuine understanding, interpreting and communication and new discovery come about in [idle talk] and out of it and against it.” In no case are we untouched by the way things have been previously and publicly understood. In no case are we set before “an open country of a ‘world-in-itself’” to be encountered with virgin eyes. And yet for all this, the true form of talk for Heidegger can never be idle.

The valorization of silence and condemnation of chatter has a long philosophical tradition. “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something,” Plato reportedly claimed. But taciturnity, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski argues, is in many cultures a sign not just of unfriendliness but of bad character. The opposite of small talk isn’t big talk, but no talk; not meaningful conversations about the infinitude of the private man, but the potential hostility of dead air. We find the silence of others alarming rather than reassuring, Malinowski observes, and breaking silence with companionable words is the first act in establishing links of fellowship; empty pleasantries are required “to get over the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence.” In this analysis, “beautiful day out” is just the evolved form of “look, I’m putting down my machete.”

Drawing on his ethnographic field studies in Papua New Guinea, Malinowski identifies the type of language used in “free, aimless social intercourse” by the term “phatic communion.” Prevalent in “European drawing-rooms” no less than “savage tribes,” such talk takes place when a number of people sit together over a village fire at the end of a day, “or when they chat, resting from work, or when they accompany some mere manual work by gossip quite unconnected with what they are doing.” We tend to think of linguistic communication as a meaningful transmission of thoughts from a speaker to a hearer, but “inquiries about health, comments on weather, affirmations of some supremely obvious state of things—all such are exchanged, not in order to inform, not in this case to connect people in action, certainly not in order to express any thought.” Instead, Malinowski suggests, the function of phatic communion touches on “one of the bedrock aspects of man’s nature in society”: our fundamental need for the presence of others, “the well-known tendency to congregate, to be together, to enjoy each other’s company.”

With all due respect to Schleiermacher, Wettergespräche might be the best example of small talk’s potential to express sociality. As Virginia Woolf makes clear in a passage from her late novel The Years, there is no greater democratizer than the weather. “The fine rain, the gentle rain, poured equally over the mitred and the bareheaded with an impartiality which suggested that the god of rain, if there were a god, was thinking, Let it not be restricted to the very wise, the very great, but let all breathing kind, the munchers and chewers, the ignorant, the unhappy … and also Mrs. Jones in the alley, share my bounty.” Our lovely-day-outs and yes-isn’t-its assure one another of at least one thing we all share. However diverse the forms of our experience, we are, all of us munchers and chewers, indiscriminately subject to the vagaries of the skies.

Lest this point seem too humanistically utopian, let me bring things down to ground. “A fine thing to get up on stilts: for even on stilts we must ever walk on our legs! And upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.” That’s Montaigne at the end of his long, rambling essay, “On Experience.” He’s not talking about the weather, of course, but the sentiment isn’t dissimilar to Woolf’s, if we throw a sprinkling of precipitation and a splash of pathetic fallacy into the mix. The rain that falls indifferently on the very wise and the very great, the ignorant and the unhappy, and also Mrs. Jones in the alley, we could say, serves to reminds us of both the inescapability and the universality of our seats.

My best friends and I often catch ourselves talking about the weather, especially if we live far apart. I say “catch” because as soon as we realize it, we stop self-consciously, almost guiltily, as if each of us wants to reassure the other that our friendship hasn’t come to that. But inquiries about the climate where the other person lives are an expression of care, a signal of wanting to know what it feels like where the other person is. These questions and comparisons—“It’s been raining here for days. No, really? The sun’s been out here all week”—manifest curiosity not about the actual tempers of distant skies, but about the interior weather of the people who live beneath them. In a recent 3 Quarks Daily piece entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Weather,” Alyssa Pelish speculates similarly about the empathy that can be coded in redundant observations about the temperatures outside, poignantly relating her father’s habitual practice of checking the forecast in the faraway cities where his children lived.

For Heidegger, a crucial aspect of the human mode of being is that we find ourselves not just thrown into a world, but thrown into a world that we share with others. By his own logic, then, we could understand small talk as an affirmation of our collective thrownness, even if for him it always remains inauthentic. In this sense, it’s a way of continually responding to the perfectly justified complaint of children, I didn’t ask to be born. The content of idle chatter may be empty, but through it we affirm to each other that out of the existential catapult and across the range of possible worlds, we’ve landed on our arses, all of us, in this one.

If this truth has any profundity, it has at least as much banality, and double the amount of self-evidence. Is it any wonder, then, that we’re constantly communicating it to each other not by weighty argument or the authentic mode of keeping silent, but by the inconsequential chatter of the everyday? In making observations about “what is perfectly obvious” with strangers, or idly shooting the breeze with friends, we simply employ the appropriate tool for the job. It may be hard, living in such close proximity to one another, to find reprieve from unsought or unwanted talk of all kinds—cell phones, for one, have made imposed eavesdropping a fact of modern life—but if we restrict speech to the profound, the serious or even the meaningful, we impoverish it.

Any defense of small talk is difficult to mount today because we are obviously undergoing an erosion of big talk—serious discussion of complicated ideas and events—in our public discourse. But if much of what masquerades as big talk turns out to be small, it doesn’t follow that small talk is the enemy. If talking is a fundamental human propensity, we should attend to its different forms, taking care to distinguish between them, serving as they do such different functions. There should be more real, big talk. But perhaps there should also be more small talk. It is, after all, the first means by which we herd animals paw the ground around each other and tentatively join our solitudes.

“Throughout the Western world it is agreed that people must meet frequently, and that it is not only agreeable to talk, but that it is a matter of common courtesy to say something even when there is hardly anything to say”—this is C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards in The Meaning of Meaning, cited by Malinowski in his essay. A similar sentiment is expressed in a defense of gossip from 1821: “Why do men associate? Some say it is owing to our weakness, and our wants, but it would be more correct to attribute it to the delights afforded us by the sound of the human voice.” And over a century and a half later, talking about her observations of chat-rooms dedicated to the Furby, the electronic pet that swept the late Nineties, MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle speculates that “the extraordinary popularity of the seemingly extraordinarily banal chats has to do with people experiencing the pleasures of the feel of talk.” The delights of the human voice, the pleasures of the feel of talk—it seems there’s something to be said for talking for the sake of talking. Small talk may be speech when there’s nothing to say, but what we’re expressing is our need to talk regardless. Which reminds me: lovely day out, isn’t it?

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