Small Talk, Big Talk

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?”

Businessteam at a meetingIf 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.

Those Golden Moments Of Oafish Awkwardness

Yesterday I went to a nearby restaurant for lunch and a quiet place to work on a presentation.  Initially I was seated in a section by myself, but then a 20-something woman was seated at the next table over, and about 10 minutes later a guy sat down with her.

As I sat, silently scratching away at my papers, I couldn’t help but overhear the guy’s end of their conversation.  (Honest!)  It quickly became apparent that they were on a first date arranged by one of those matchmaking services that promise to get busy working people who are interested in romance together for a workday lunch.  The ads suggest that it’s a no-pressure situation — hey, it’s just an hour, over food, in a neutral location — but my eavesdropping experience yesterday tells me that an awkward first date remains an awkward first date.  I’m guessing that, for these two, there won’t be a second one.

After initial chit-chat about their jobs and the restaurant, there was a too-long lull in the conversation, then the guy started talking about his health and the fact that he had high blood pressure.  (What?  Am I wrong, or should personal health discussions be deferred until much later, when a relationship reaches a different level?)

The guy’s nervous efforts to fill the gaps of silence then caused the staccato flow of klutzy comments to become a torrent, with references to “girls” at his workplace, the fact that he smoked only a few cigarettes a day but couldn’t quit even though he didn’t like the way it made him smell (I’m guessing the woman couldn’t help taking a brief, sampling sniff of the air over the table after that one), and his view that staying in hostels was a great way to travel because it was just like being back in a college dorm.  He came out with other, similar bon mots, but I’ve managed to successfully put them out of my head.

I’m not sure the guy noticed, but the woman wasn’t saying much to hold up her end of the conversation; she probably was eating her food as fast as she could so she could gracefully get the heck out of Dodge and chalk up the experience as a bust.  I had the same urge to escape the zone of intense awkwardness and made an early exit stage left.

Those of us who are happily married to wonderful spouses have gladly forgotten the red-faced feeling of embarrassment during a stumbling first date.  I suppose it’s useful to get a tangible reminder of how bad it can be from time to time.  And yes — it’s bad.