The Fine Art of Small Talk

Love and Sex

The Fine Art of Small Talk

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who like small talk and those who are wrong.

Small talk deviates from one of internet and modern society’s favourite tropes: “meaningful” talk. In the current post-knowledge society, “deep and meaningful” talk, which includes dropping names like Murakami, discussing the symbolism of Sea of Pain and the paradox of postcolonialism, has become a barometer of sensitivity and intelligence. It is the pillar on which we arrive at the worth of the person sitting opposite us. We live in a world, where everyone wants to decipher the depths of the universe, after one glass of Old Monk. Yes, I’m looking at you, pseudo-introvert hipsters, who judge listicles as the death of writing but share results of Facebook quizzes in a nonchalant way, just because they said you’d be a “writer” in the future.

There is nothing wrong with being deeply interested in the workings of the universe and contemplating mankind, but there is something to be said for chit-chat about how much you hate certain contestants on Bigg Boss and whether poop talk makes for acceptable dinner-table conversation. In our hurry to avoid weather and star-sign conversations, we hurtle straight into life. “Life is more meaningful than weather”, once said, but to that I add the rejoinder, it can be as minor as the yumminess of gummy bears or the greatness of Taher Shah’s new single. Especially on a first date.

In a bid to avoid being trivial, I’ve known fellow sisters and brothers, who dive straight into the deep end of heartfelt conversation about their hopes and dreams, when there is nothing quite as intimidating as forced intimacy. Why would a brother care if you, pretty girl, have always been the soul of an artist trapped in the body of an accountant? Excelling at the art of small talk, lets the profound questions of who we are and where we want to go, simmer in the background while you crack a joke about the cow. It’s just conversation, let it flow. In a world of texting and updating, opinionating and standing up, we’ve forgotten the pleasures of small talk.

Like every other girl who has ever said the word internet and has seen the “if she knows the offside rule” meme, she indulged my question and named a team.

In 2014, a psychologist at the University of Chicago conducted the most radical experiment in the history of the world: Asking commuters on a metro to speak to the person next to them. In a world overrun by emojis, this study was drastic and led to astonishing results. Those who spoke to their fellow passengers, came back with glowing reviews of their morning ride and those who didn’t engage spoke of the negativity of the experience. Another study asked students to engage in conversation and the results were similar: Engaging in small talk makes people happy. Whether we’re talking to strangers on the train or the date seated across the dinner table.

I remember the time when I went out with this really cute girl and the date was going great. I was loosening up, sipping on a smooth lager, and then I asked her about her favourite football team. Like every other girl who has ever said the word internet and has seen the “if she knows the offside rule” meme, she indulged my question and named a team. Thinking I’ve really hit the jackpot, I took one more sip of the beer, pushed all my chips to the middle of the table, and asked her more football things. It was beautiful and romantic, and I fell in love. Later, she never returned my calls. You know why, don’t you? I created a high-pressure “knowledge” situation on a date and she evacuated.

Small talk is an important rite of passage that you cannot escape no matter how hot you look on Tinder. One can’t simply walk into a prospective relationship/one-night stand/whatever-else-the-kids-are-calling-it-these-days with a no-talk-all-cock or no-dinna-or-wine’a-only-vagina attitude because it’s goddamned awkward. Everyone wants to be led to flirtation with linguistic hand-holding and semi-intelligent quips about your job or your friends.

Good small talk then, for the uninitiated, involves a push and pull with how less seriously one takes themselves. Greet people in a relaxed way, never ever ask a generic “Wassup” or high-pressure “What book inspires you the most” and, for the love of St Valentines’s shiny red backside, never ever answer in monosyllables that involve the word “fine”. Fine is the enemy of interesting and fine is the funeral pyre where every relationship goes to die a slow and painful death. Rather, draw people out, ask them to “bring you up to date”, and watch the brain unspool.

In this world of high-pressure performance, low-pressure small talk is a shared cultural artefact that everyone connects with. The cute accountant might not know Murakami or football, but he can tell a couple of tricks he does to make his workday interesting and you will laugh.

It’s like I said, there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who like small talk and those who are wrong. Take your time, do it right.