I recently read a 2016 article in the New Yorker, in which journalist Karan Mahajan wrote about his personal experience as an immigrant trying to comprehend and learn to use American small talk. After a decade in the States, Mahajan, originally from Delhi, finally mastered the art of small talk and discussed its role in American society.
The complexity and difficulty of small talk aren’t lost in the fictional world as well. I recall an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Lt. Commander Data, the android character on the science fiction show, was fascinated by the concept of small talk and spent a good part of the program trying to mimic the innate skills of another officer.
Although I grew up in the American heartland, I can completely relate to Mahajan and Data’s struggle to comprehend and apply this most useless but unmistakably necessary communication skill. But what is small talk and why do we do it?
According to UrbanDictionary.com, “small talk” is defined as, “Useless and unnecessary conversation attempted to fill the silence in an awkward situation. Usually is initiated by comments regarding the current weather, weather pattern of the past/future few days or major weather disturbances in the recent past.”
In day-to-day conversation, can be characterized in a casual exchange at a checkout counter when someone says, “how’s your day,” or waiting in a long queue for coffee, “they’re really busy today, huh?” I’ve also noticed that the person who initiates the attempted conversation is generally the one who feels most uncomfortable in the situation. Oddly, when I feel that way I tend to get quieter, not more talkative, probably a symptom of my lack of assimilation to this concept.
In his article, Mahajan suggests that American society is one where we all want to believe we like each other and that conversation should be easy among strangers. However, we only want to communicate to the line of privacy that should never be crossed leaving a sort of empty space where the meaningful conversation should be if we allowed it. Small talk is how we fill that void.
Politicians use small talk to placate voters on the campaign trail or at public events. Hairdressers and barbers are master small talkers, as often are restaurant servers, cashiers and others in the retail industry. Don’t misunderstand, that isn’t an insult by any means, quite the opposite. I consider myself to have someone of an above average grasp of the English language and still this talent eludes me. It’s a valuable skill in many respects and sometimes people think it’s a “city” thing.
In my opinion, however, the “gift of gab,” as it is sometimes called, is far more common in rural communities than in more urban settings. You may have heard it said of someone that he or she, “never met a stranger.” What that means is that the individual in question has an easy time saying hello and striking up a conversation with pretty much anyone.
Many people in my family tend to be that way. When I was growing up I’d watch my dad go back and forth with a restaurant server or gas station attendant for what seemed to me as hours. I’d sit and wait while he discussed the traffic or the gas mileage of his farm truck or whatever. I never understood it.
I am just not the open communicator that one might need to be in those situations. I’m never rude, but I can be brusque. I just want to get in and get out. That said, there are people in or near my hometown that I know who work in various places and I’ll say hello or talk to them about something more meaningful. I enjoy those interactions, but I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to do so for my sake.
To me small talk is uniquely American and it has an important, albeit innocuous place in our society. I do wish, though, that when we could find more substantial common ground upon which to begin a dialogue with one another. Maybe someday.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer. More at deerinheadlines.com