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How small is your small talk?


Small talk is what we say when we have nothing to say but want to be sociable. It is one of those harmless habits that keeps society together. But this kind of talk is in danger of becoming a lost art. Not only do we have less and less to say, but we scarcely dare to say anything.

The first few moments of a new encounter set the tone for everything that follows. Some people have a natural gift for opening a conversation. Others learn it by necessity. The late lamented Queen Elizabeth, who had to meet thousands of people from all over the world, had some standard opening lines, my favorite being “Have you come far?” But that doesn’t really work at local events.

Most small talk is casual, essentially meaningless — a few friendly words at the supermarket checkout for example. But it is a human-to-human contact, and opportunities for these seem to be getting rarer. At the checkout, or the gas station, or the bank, or on the phone, we are likely to find ourselves talking to machines, which is surely the definition of futility, as pointless as talking to your cat or your congressman.

Small talk depends on at least some shared knowledge and values, as well as a broad area of tolerance. But none of those things can be taken for granted, so that chatting casually to a stranger imposes self-censorship almost to the point of silence. Don’t mention politics, or religion, or economics, and probably not science either. You can’t even ask whether that lovely baby is a boy or a girl. Small talk is not an argument; it should be a friendly social noise like the twittering of birds, signaling simply that we recognize each other.

I have no talent for small talk except on the subject of weather. That’s because I come from a place where people scarcely talk about anything else. When I spent a year in southern California, I had no conversation at all. The advantage of the weather is, or used to be, that it is totally outside our control, a fate which we all suffer equally without being responsible for it. But now even the weather can provoke angry accusations and recriminations because of climate change. Either climate change does not exist, or it was created by industrialists, or by airlines, or by the other political party, or by motorists, or perhaps by the Chinese, or by Indian peasants burning their fields, or just by foreigners in general. Nobody knows the truth, and yet everybody knows it, and believes in it, and is ready to defend it.

Television programs are the only safe subjects for small talk. “Did you see the latest episode of Homicidal Housewives?” will offend nobody, because the television and cable companies have removed or neutered all controversial themes in advance, leaving nothing but the fake violence and synthetic romance that the audience enjoys. Television offers a more or less continuous spectacle of car chases, crashes, explosions, gun battles, fist fights, illicit affairs, bitter divorces, devious plots, gruesome murders and, of course, conspiracies. Nobody could possibly object to any of this. After all, that’s life.

And that’s the secret of making small talk in any situation, without fear or embarrassment — talk about television. It’s about as small as talk can get.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.