Visit theallusionist.org/smalltalk to hear or read about this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, bite down on language to stifle my own screams of despair.
Today’s show is about one of the things we do to avoid talking about politics: small talk! How words attempt to bridge the gap between one of us skinsacks and another.
Let’s prepare ourselves with a little word history, sponsored by The Great Courses Plus, video lectures to renovate your mind. Want to brush up on a foreign language, or give yourself a grounding in gardening or art or paediatric medicine? All these subjects and many more await you in the Great Courses Plus’s extensive library. I’ve nearly finished The Secret Life of Words: English Words and their Origins, and my brain feels much fuller as a result - and for my next course I’m eyeing up Myths, Lies and Half-Truths of Language Usage. You can join me watching these or stream any of the Great Courses Plus lectures for free - get the offer at thegreatcoursesplus.com/Allusion.
Thanks to the Great Courses Plus, here’s the etymology of conversation. The word has had its current meaning of ‘talk’ since the 1570s; prior to that, ‘living with’ or ‘keeping company with’, which goes back as far as Latin, where it originated from ‘com vertare’, literally ‘to turn about with’ - giving the impression that the Ancient Romans chatted while do-se-doing.
In the Bible, ‘conversation’ was more likely to mean someone’s social relationships, their place within their community. But, from at least the early 16th century, ‘conversation’ was also a euphemism for sex. And ‘criminal conversation’ was a legal term for adultery. It’s still in use in some places now, but in England, at the peak of such cases in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, husbands who brought criminal conversation lawsuits against their wives or their wives’ lovers could win damages equivalent to £10m-20m in present-day money. Per act of adultery! Good earner, if you were the husband. Nothing for you, Georgian-era ladies.
It’s not that kind of conversation we’re talking about today, though. On with the show.
HZ: How are you?
BENJAMEN: How am I? Look at me, I’m a wreck. I’m in pain, I’m not feeling well… I just want to watch Game of Thrones and fall asleep.
HZ: No!! you’re not actually supposed to give a truthful response to the question “How are you?” Unless it's your doctor asking.
HZ: How are you?
ISY: I’m wearing trousers that are kind of digging into my bum in a weird way. They’re a cross between leggings and jeans -
HZ: - jeggings -
ISY: Yeah. And they’re partly falling down and partly digging in, which is quite a strange combination.
HZ: Well great, now I’m all too aware of the state of her bumcrack. But if I didn’t want to know how she is, why did I even ask?
Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? That is how conversations so often begin. And nearly every time, this is how it goes:
How are you?
Fine thanks, and you?
It's not informative, so why bother? It's an exchange that indicates a conversation is being initiated. It's small talk: safe, trivial - small.
HZ: The challenge is just to have the longest conversation we can in small talk.
HZ: You have to start.
ELEANOR: It’s nice weather out today...
HZ: Weather. Classic start. Of course nobody needs to know each other’s perception of the same weather, but in Britain you can experience blazing sunshine and an icy gale within ten minutes, so there’s always something to talk about, even if neither of you care.
ELEANOR: ...It’s still cold at night. Going to be warming up soon.
HZ: Unless the apocalypse comes.
ELEANOR: It probably will warm up when the apocalypse comes.
HZ: Unless it’s a new ice age or something.
HZ: I blew it. Let's try again.
DAVE: The weather today was variable.
HZ: It was quite bright when we woke up, then it rained.
DAVE: I saw some hail.
HZ: Really? That was a good get.
DAVE: Absolutely, yeah. It was an interesting weather to experience.
HZ: Did you have a good day?
DAVE: Yes. There was a lot of variety in my feelings about the day.
HZ: I feel now you’re veering already into something too intimate, because you’re talking about your feelings.
DAVE: I’m trying not to go into anything!
HZ: You should just say, “Yeah, it was fine. Not bad.” Otherwise you’re giving me an in into your psyche.
DAVE: I’m not very good at this already.
HZ: But what IS being good at small talk? Is it the ability to keep a light conversation going for as long as possible without ever touching on any matters of substance, or is it being able to move from small talk to big talk very swiftly? You and the person you're small talking with might not have the same expectations or objectives.
DEVON: How would you define small talk?
MICHAEL: Errr… conversational foreplay! [laughs]
HZ: Saucy! Building up to the good stuff!
HZ: What do you think constitutes it?
MATTHEW: Constitutes small talk? Talk I wouldn’t otherwise have with a friend.
HZ: Yes, with friends you can usually skip the small talk and go straight to familiar territory. The small talk is for minor acquaintances and strangers.
MC: It’s a good device for keeping strangers at exactly the kind of length I like to keep them, which is further than my arms.
HZ: So it’s conversational arms?
MC: Conversational arms! But, Go Go Gadget arms.
HZ: Those Go Go Gadget arms might keep you at a great distance, or bring you in for a hug. You gauge which with a series of microscopic negotiations in the form of light conversation.
You might spend far more time talking about the weather than actually caring about the weather, but you’re remarking on a shared experience that is unlikely to cause offence or an argument, gently cluing you in on where to go next with the discourse.
MATT: In a party situation, it’s always, “How do you know these people?”
ELEANOR: I’ll do a visual comment. If they’ve got a dress I like - even if they’ve got a dress I don’t like.
HZ: “You’ve got a dress on.”
ELEANOR: “That’s a hat.” It’s very literal. Or if we’ve gathered for a particular thing or person, we can comment on the thing or person. If we’ve all seen a film, we can say, “What did you think about that film, huh?”
HZ: And if they’re like, “It’s alright,” then where do you go?
ELEANOR: Maybe somewhere topical. “How do you like them Oscars?”, maybe.
HZ: That’s not going to work in September.
ELEANOR: What’s the big awards in September?
ELEANOR:I don’t follow the Emmys.
HZ: When’s the Nobel Prize?
ELEANOR: ...I’m not on top of that.
HZ: You need a prize calendar.
ELEANOR: I do need a prize calendar.
HZ: Whatever it takes to avoid an awkward silence, right? Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance, or whatever.
The choice of topic isn’t the only thing to consider.
AMY: It’s not just about opinion, it’s about the length of time you’re expected to talk as well. So the length of the lift journey, or the length of the two-minute conversation on the street, so you can only ask questions for the length of response. But it’s rude to ask someone something where the answer could be longer than the journey.
MARTIN: “Isn’t it wet today?”
SAM: “Yes, it is really wet today.”
MARTIN: “What is your greatest fear?”
SAM: “Sorry, I’m getting off at this floor.”
HZ: But why dance around each other with these insignificant chats? If you’ve only got a couple of minutes with that person, you could risk an awkward outcome and go for something more revealing: “What is your greatest disappointment?” “Which do you fear more: dying before your time or a lengthy undignified decline?” “If you weren’t related to them, would you stay in contact with your family members?” But…
AMY: Because I try to get into it straight away, they back right off it, back towards small talk. And they’re baffled that I tried to talk about something of substance in a short space of time.
HZ: Or perhaps not baffled, just scared, or unprepared?
AVERY: To understand who someone is and how to get to that place, you have to know how they’re doing today; what they do for a living. To touch base and set up a rapport first.
HZ: So what you’re saying is it creates an equality between the people in the conversation. If you do the small talk, you can establish the level the conversation’s going to be on.
AVERY: Yeah. If you want to have a substantive conversation, this is a way of assessing where their brain is coming from.
I’ve never understood the people who are like, “I HATE small talk, I DON’T GET it, I don’t tolerate it, I want to have REAL conversations with people. It’s a fundamental way that people care about each other. Even if it’s talking about the weather, assuring did you have a nice day, did you get caught in the rain - when I see someone making an effort to produce small talk, and really bothering to ask questions, and really trying to connect with you, it’s so meaningful, it means a lot.
HZ: So the information you’re exchanging might not be particularly meaningful, but the fact you are exchanging it is. And, if it works, the small talk is the launchpad for a deeper conversation. Or, at least a more lively conversation:
MAE: When you meet someone from New Jersey, the common opener is, “What exit?” As in what exit off the turnpike. I was exit 4. Which I learned specifically because so many people asked me.
HZ: Were people divided into very specific numerical factions?
MAE: Yeah, well 4, we’re really down near the South Jersey then if you’re up at 11 or 12, you’re in the North Jersey end, and some people are practically New York, and NJ is tiny, but it’s very divided.
HZ: If someone said, “What exit?” and you said, “4”, would that lead to anything? Or is that the conversation killed?
MAE: If they were an exit near you, you could say, “Which shore did you go to - LBI or Ocean City or Wildwood?” Wildwood is kind of trashy. Long Beach Island was the one that was closest and smallest, then Ocean City was the one that was dry - no alcohol - so it was more families, and was a little nicer. So you could evaluate the person’s life depending on what they said, and what period of time you went there.
HZ: So what you’re doing is establishing a common experience, and then you can advance the discourse.
MAE: And you could talk about, “What’s your favourite pizza place in this area?” and now people talk about how close they lived to where The Sopranos may have taken place… There were stories when I was a kid of people being buried in the woods. The Mob. They’d found somebody. So people would say, “How close were you?”
HZ: Once you’ve got onto, “How close were you to a crime scene?” that’s getting quite good.
MAE: Yeah, it does get a little better!
HZ: From a number, which is boring; to a beach; to pizza, which most people can muster an opinion about; to murder. Four steps. Brilliant. New Jersey, you nailed small talk.
We who live elsewhere, without shores or Sopranos, just have to keep going until we find our way in.
MATTHEW: In a conversation, you want to keep the person talking until you start talking about something that actually is interesting, which doesn’t necessarily have to be common ground, just something they’re passionate about that you’d want to hear.
HZ: I’m curious as to what the bridge is from small talk to something meaningful. Because I feel there are people I’ve know for years and I still never found that bridge. And it’s not that I don’t like them; I just can’t find it.
MATTHEW: I think that’s all my male friends. I’ve got friends I’ve had for ten years - don’t know if they’ve got a girlfriend, don’t know anything about them.
HZ: Are you not curious?
MATTHEW: No! None of my business!
HZ: So what do you talk about? You’re not into sport, so you don’t have that fallback.
MATTHEW: We just gaze longingly into each other’s eyes. That’s why I don’t want to know about their girlfriends.
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This episode was produced by Devon Taylor, Cheeka Eyers and me, Helen Zaltzman. In order of appearance, you heard: Benjamen Walker, Isy Suttie, Eleanor McDowall, Dave Pickering, Devon Taylor, Michael the barman, Matthew Crosby, Matt Hill, Amy Smith, Martin Austwick, Sam Pay, Avery Trufelman and Mae Mars.
Join me at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow, and in real life at the Allusionist live show at the London Podcast Festival on 24th September.