The art and science of small talk

 I hate parties. Ok, generally I hate all sorts of social or work related social gatherings with large groups of people. There, I’ve said it out loud and possibly proudly. I don’t say it much as when I say it people look at me as if there is something fundamentally flawed with me for not liking these kinds of things. Although the questions are not verbalised you can read them all over peoples faces,  “What’s not to like?” “What kind of person doesn’t like chatting, drinking, eating with others?” “What kind of person doesn’t want to meet new and interesting people?”

 Well, that kind of person would be me. Don’t get me wrong I don’t mind meeting new and interesting people, but I don’t like social gatherings that require me to stand around and make polite chit-chat. I don’t like the posturing, the inane conversations about things that don’t matter, the fake laughter, the faux introductions and connections. Small talk. I LOATHE small talk. In gatherings where small talk occurs I am so uncomfortable that you can see it leeching out of my skin.

 I am bewildered by small talk. So bewildered am I by it, that I googled it. I’m wondering what the art and the science of small talk is. Going to the source of all relevant, pertinent and rigorous information, I went to Wikipedia and this is what I discovered:

 Small talk is an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_talk)

 Suddenly, all is clear. This is why I loathe small talk. It does not cover ‘any transactions that need to be addressed’, it ‘does not cover any functional topics’, and hence, I don’t care enough about it to engage it. In social gatherings I want to rip all the semblance of polite chit chat away and just get to the heart of what matters. That is why I found myself last night at a book launch asking (interrogating?) my principal about what lay at the very heart of his decision to take on the role and what sustains him in it. While other people no doubt had polite, fleeting, small talk moments, I was towards the back of the room trying to dig through the façade of small talk to something that is meaningful and something that is real. It was a great conversation. I learnt a lot about a man who has been part of my working life in one way or another for the past 11 years.  Then I moved onto my Vice-Chancellor, following up on the same question I asked him earlier that day, a question he said he doesn’t get asked a lot – a question about what is it that has been at the core of what drives him.

 Maybe you’re starting to understand what doesn’t match with me and small talk. Small talk at parties doesn’t normally involve asking VC’s or Principal’s what are the core values that sustain them in their work and get them out of bed in the morning. It doesn’t ask them to think about what led them to this point, what series of fortunate accidents, or what serendipity, combined with motivation and ambition, got them to where they are. I don’t care and don’t want to know about the weather, or your travel plans, or the latest film you saw. I care and want to know about what matters to you, what drives you forward, what led you down one path and not another.

 Being bad at small talk is probably a career flaw for an academic. There are lots of conference dinners, social gatherings, launches, events, lots of opportunities for small talk. Everyone tells me this is where the connections are made, this is where building blocks for collaborations, grants, research groups emerge. I’m always intrigued by this, intrigued by the fact that deeply reflective people find themselves in situations and interactions that barely scratch the surface. Maybe I need to take a remedial course in small talk, surely there is some “Dummies guide for small talk” out there on the internet, surely I could learn some stock standard phrases and questions. Even typing that though makes me want to rip off my own face.

 So, how about it? How about we just skip the small talk? Let’s get right to the story. You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.

That sounds like a much better plan.

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