9 min read

Small Talk

In March of 2020, when my employer announced that our offices were shutting down due to the COVID lockdown, I didn't think there was a need for elaborate goodbyes. It seemed like a school summer break where you go home with a certainty that you'd see your friends in a matter of weeks. It turned out to be nothing like a summer break. Nobody could have predicted that it would go on for as long as it did, and the permanent impact it’d have on the nature of work. What seemed like an aberration has now become the new normal – new variants of the virus popping up every month, working from home, wearing masks and so on. A month of lockdown extended to a couple of months and then we were told not to return to the office until announced otherwise. After three years, today, I'm still working from home and never intend to go back again to work in an office five days a week. My home is my office now, and the only faces I see during the day most days are of my wife and kids. The introvert in me was happy about the change, still is. I had always wondered what working completely remotely would be like. It felt better in my mind, working in a quiet, comfortable place, a workspace designed for you by you, and to be able to work with the focus that my job demanded. As an introvert in "a world that can't stop talking", as Susan Cain puts it, I didn't have to pretend to be an extrovert anymore. No more smiling at random people in the elevator, while trying to wonder the entire time whether to strike a conversation with those breathing next to you. No more eye contact with strangers. No more presentations, or public speaking in large meeting rooms full of people staring at you. No more distractions that's characteristic of the open-office floor plans. And no more small talk with the people you bump into in the hallways, or the kitchen, or the ones that are sitting around you.

Small talk often gets a bad rap in society. People say, with almost a hint of pride, that they can't do or stand small talk, and are better at having deep conversations, as if that's supposed to signify the depth of their character, or personality. I have done it too, without thinking much about what that's supposed to mean, without thinking much about what the term small talk itself means. It's equated to superficial talk, something trivial, and unimportant. I'm not good at it. I never know what to say, or how to begin, especially with strangers. The few times I had forced myself to do it, I had made it embarrassing enough for myself and awkward enough for the other person that both of us would avoid each other the next time. I hate that feeling. Everytime that happens, I wish I could go back in time and do it better. Everytime that happens, I feel like I lose an opportunity to get to know somebody. I admire and envy the people who do it and do it well. It feels like a super power, being able to turn strangers into friends, or warm up to having a conversation with somebody you know.  That's really what it is, in running terms – warm-up.

But it wasn't always like that, I wasn't always like that. Back in India, I felt at ease conversing with people who I did not know.  Something had changed.

For the twenty four years I had lived in India, before moving to the US, it didn't feel superficial. Then I realized that small talk is a very Western way of looking at it. In India, we didn't characterize it as such. There was no label to the conversations you made with people when you bumped into them, or the exchange you had with them in the first few minutes. It was only when I came to the US did I start seeing it as a distinct form. Human mind works in weird ways. The moment you put a label on something and start to see it, you can't unsee it. What came natural to me before now took more conscious effort. I felt more conscious, even nervous, about the part of the conversation that’s called small talk. Was what I was saying small enough? I didn’t wanna accidentally cross the boundary with someone and do big or deep talk when they weren’t expecting and make them uncomfortable. How, and when, would I go from the shallow end to the deep end of the pool? All these thoughts racing in my mind that I was hiding from the outside world made me just avoid the whole situation and not make eye contact. I was better at it when I didn't think of it as such. Words came out of my mouth more easily.

Small talk is defined as a casual and trivial conversation, and as an informal conversation, on innocuous and unimportant subjects, usually engaged in at social gatherings out of politeness. The latter is quite a definition. It's infused with adjectives that do a perfect job of putting small talk in a negative light – informal, innocuous, and unimportant, social gatherings, all of which point to something that should be avoided. In linguistics, it's characterized as "phatic communication", which means that its goal is to hold the social fabric rather than to be of intrinsic value, which begs the question – What does it mean to say that it doesn't hold intrinsic value in a society where holding the social fabric is the currency of value?

Language plays a significant role in influencing our thoughts and its evolution shapes our perception of the world. We take distinctions and classifications and arrange them in a certain order, of importance, of relevance, of meaning.  Take the example of the word black, which is merely a color, just like any other. In the world of colors, it's a harmless classification. But in the human world it's not merely that. We have come to associate negative connotations with it, which is unfortunate but true. A black mark on character, black magic, a blacklist.

Small is another good example. It is meant to tell us something about the size of an object, and hence makes the most sense for physical objects. A small paycheck, a small river, a small car, a small house. But we use the adjective with things that are not physical or concrete in nature, and hence not quantifiable. And in doing so, we assign a relative importance or priority to it. Small when used like that means inconsequential, like in a small problem, or more relevant here, small talk.

A 2010 study by Matthias R. Mehl et al., titled "Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-being is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations", that's one of the well cited on the topic, apparently found a correlation between the depth of conversations and personal connections. In other words, quality conversations were found to be better to build deeper bonds than small talk. The title of the paper implies that there's two kinds of conversations, the kind with substance, and one without it, you know, like small talk.

I googled "small talk" just to get a sense of what we think it to be, and I found various topics – location or place of origin, taste and preferences in art, entertainment, and food, travel plans, hobbies, work and so on, the so-called "conversation starters". I compared that with the conversations I have with those around me. They are of different kinds, based on the nature of the people, and my relationship with them. Can I sort them into good and bad? Not always. It depends on what I'm in the mood for, who the people are, how big the group is, where we're talking and so on. There are so many factors that influence how I feel about my conversations with other people that it seems to me that the only thing that lacks substance is the reductionist way of picking things out of their context, classifying them, and then ranking them.

My dad can go on for hours with somebody without talking about anything that I'd say is significant. But that doesn't mean they are insignificant, and it'd be arrogant and ignorant to think so. To him they are not. It's not anecdotal or unique to my dad either. People from his generation and cultural background all do it, and do so comfortably. It's the glue that holds people together in collective societies. The small talk that you do in India might seem to cross personal boundaries for those who are foreign to the culture. My dad, on his first encounter with someone, will ask them whether or not they are married, and if they are, whether or not they have kids, where they work, how much they earn, and then about their extended family and their relationship statuses. He'll talk about what he had for breakfast or lunch and how it was, about the weather, about global warming and the political climate without having any deep insights or understanding about them. He'll talk about social gatherings, both in the recent past and the upcoming ones and pass judgments on them based on the quality of the food, the amount of money the hosts spent on it, the pompous show of jewelry, and hospitality the guests received and so on. I talk with my dad on the phone everyday and the conversation stays pretty much the same – we exchange a few words on what we ate for breakfast or lunch, we talk about the weather, and then about whatever he thinks is important enough from the newspaper that day. We also ask each other what we did on that day, the answer to which is the same most days. I hated those conversations before because I didn't see any value in them. I, like most people, fell into the trap of looking down upon small talk. Like the paper suggests, I didn't see any substance in it, and so I did it less often. I have since realized that I had gotten it wrong in two ways. First, I tried to find meaning in the content of the conversation – the point of such conversations is not only and not necessarily the topic but even merely the act of doing it. It indicates an interest to engage with the other person, it tells that you care. And second, I was looking at it from a selfish perspective, I was looking for value in it for myself – the value isn't meant to be found in or for any one individual but in the relationship itself, which is a concept foreign to the individualistic society. Calling my dad everyday served at least two purposes. It reminded him that I was there for him, despite the physical distance, and that I cared enough to make time to talk to him everyday. Another was to make him feel good, feel heard, and less lonely. It was a way to keep him sane, while he went about his day alone.

That makes me wonder – What if we got small talk wrong? What if small talk is, in fact, substantive talk when done for the right reasons, in the right way, and with the right mindset? What if we utterly failed to understand its value, and how and why it's done? And what if our denigration of it by calling it small biased people against it?

When I started to write this, I thought that my rant was going to be about the fact that we call it small talk. The small in small talk was what pricked me enough to think about it, write about it. But I realize now that my problem with it is deeper – it’s with the classification itself. Small talk was not small for the generations and people that were doing it before us, those who lived in a tribe, a village, or continue to do. In simplistic, collectivistic societies and communities that's still true today. They talk about each other's families, tastes, and weather, not because they have to do it, but because those are important to them. The topics matter to them and so do the people. When you are in touch with nature and your sustenance depends on it, talking about the weather isn't as trivial as you'd think from inside of an air conditioned glass building holding a cup of artisan coffee and donuts, and looking outside at the sunshine or rain. Talking with another person about how their day or weekend was isn't as casual when you care about that person. It only seems unimportant when you don't give a fuck. In collectivistic societies, categorizing communication as phatic and non-phatic, as functional and non-functional, and as something with substance and that devoid of it, is not only useless but seems to miss the point. When social relationships and reputation are the foundational building blocks, anything that helps serve the social need is the substance. It is what is of intrinsic value. The classification then seems like a result of the reductionist thinking of the modern world, that bulldozes over anything and everything that it doesn't understand, or has found not much use for. It's similar in attitude to what scientific thinking has done to pre-scientific wisdom. Small talk, as we call it now, is an act that has survived through time but lost its meaning in the industrialized world.  Any attempts to try to unpack it seems futile until we accept that it isn't small. The Aristotelian way of distinction, in this case, seems like something that wasn't necessary. Not that it was evil in itself, but humans have a way of creating hierarchies out of classifications, of bucketing things into right and wrong, good and bad, big and small. As much as it was an attempt to capture and categorize the reality of communication patterns, it perhaps ended up creating a reality that fit the categorization. The dualistic philosophy, or the discretization when applied to something that's as fluid as communication, and that's rooted in relationships between the elements rather than the elements themselves, creates this boundary that doesn't and shouldn't exist. The whole point of communication, given that we're social beings, is cooperation, and so any method of dividing them as shallow and deep seems vague and misinformed.