Like a chess game, we play out the initial, routine moves like a sort of ritual (‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘How was your weekend?’) until we get somewhere neither of us has been before. Then we start paying attention.
Yet small talk is weirdly important. Most of your best friends began as people with whom you made inane, obligatory chitchat (‘So, how do you know Steve?’) in a bar, a classroom or a workplace somewhere. It’s like our entire species has decided, hivelike, that before we ask about things we like hearing, or talk about things we like saying, we want to make sure you’re capable of engaging in content-free pleasantries for at least 2 minutes.
I’m fascinated by how this differs across cultures. As anyone who has ever traveled, lived abroad or hosted an exchange student knows, chit-chat is as culturally loaded as manners, dating, sex or food. Some cultures talk to each other everywhere. Riding the bus, waiting in line, sitting in a cafe—everything’s an opportunity to engage with the people around you.
In other countries, starting a conversation with someone you don’t know is an event that provokes stunned silence and stricken glares. The fuck, their tone of voice says as they answer monosyllabically, is this dude talking to me for?
I grew up in America, which is somewhere between these extremes, and I’ve now experienced small talk in London (chatty but aloof), Berlin (chatty when drunk or homosexual) and Copenhagen (excuse me, do I know you?).
It’s not like these countries are genetically distinct from each other. Sometime growing up, someone taught you when to engage with people around you and, if necessary, how to continue upward into actually knowing them.
It’s interesting that, with all of the talk (OK maybe just TED talks) about ‘gross national happiness‘ and how countries should contribute to the overall well-being of their citizens, how little attention small talk receives as a public policy issue.
A population that is systematically equipped to engage new people and form sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships will be happier, healthier and more productive than one without. Social support reduces stress, increases lifespan and seems to prevent everything from nervous breakdowns to cancer. Not having friends is as bad for you as smoking.
And it all comes down to small talk. The better you are at performing these introductory catechisms (‘what neighborhood do you live in?’), the more efficient you are at identifying potential friends and, ultimately, obtaining social support.
Small talk isn’t any more complicated than touch-typing, or long division, or anything else you learned in middle school. You take turns, you listen closely, you stay on topic. Like most forms of human interaction, once you look at it closely, it’s formulaic enough that it can be learned—and taught.
So why don’t countries deliberately promote conversation skills? I’m legitimately curious about this. If schools teach financial literacy and cultural literacy, why don’t they teach social literacy? Making conversation, like sending a resume or acing a job interview, is something everyone should know how to do.
Happy populations don’t just happen. Our countries taught us to add and subtract, collect and analyze, read and think. Maybe it’s time they taught us to meet each other.