The New York Times recently published an interesting article pleading for an end to “small talk.” Written by a man who is dealing with the end of an important relationship and a plunge back into the dating world, it tells of an experience in Costa Rica that convinced him that we should focus more on “big talk,” and his successful experiments in doing so on first dates and, most recently, in the workplace.
The thrust of the article is that small talk — talking about your commute, or the weather, or the local sports team — is a meaningless time-waster, and everyone knows it. Why not move directly to the big stuff, and really learn something important about the person you are talking to? So the writer has taken to asking first date questions like “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?” and “What place most inspired you and why?” and, during a business trip, asking a new colleague “Why did you fall in love with your wife?”
If this is a new trend in social interaction in America, I’m glad I’m happily married. I’m also glad I don’t work with this guy.
I happen to think that small talk serves an extremely useful social purpose. Some people are eager to share intimate details about their lives with the world at large, and no doubt would welcome intrusive personal questions from somebody they just met, but most of us don’t. If I were on a business trip with a brand new colleague and they asked me a question about how I fell in love with my wife, I would find such a question incredibly presumptuous and off-putting, and I wouldn’t answer it. Sorry, but it’s going to take a while for me to decide whether a workplace colleague will end up a close personal friend. And it’s hard for me to believe that at least some women who were asked “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?” on a first date wouldn’t groan inwardly, question whether they’ve been hooked up with a creepy potential stalker, and head for the exits as quickly and gracefully as possible.
Small talk allows you to get to know a person before you decide whether to broach weightier topics. Sure, the substance of the small talk might be meaningless, but the nature of the small talk can tell you a lot about the person across the table. Does the person have a sense of humor? Does the person seem thoughtful or thoughtless, smart or dumb, well-mannered or crude? Is the person so self-absorbed and egotistical that they end up talking entirely about himself?
And that last point is an important one. People who immediately ask questions about “big talk” topics clearly want to share their own deeply personal experiences; they no doubt ask the pointed questions with the expectation that they will get the same question in return and then launch into their own stories. There’s a fair amount of conceit in that; the lives of complete strangers just aren’t that compelling. Small talk prevents me from being awkwardly inundated by the intimate affairs and feelings of people I don’t know.
I come down strongly in favor of small talk.