Small Talk

July 18, 2012

Do you ever feel like you’re defined by your work, your education, or your marital/familial status? I can’t even begin to tell you how many conversations I’ve had about these topics, and how often I’ve said, “I’m from Boston, Massachusetts,” “my previous job was ___,” or “I have X and Y degrees.” The weather, where I’m from, family status, education, and employment history are the standard topics.

We all know the drill. We meet someone. Of course, they want to know something about us. “Where are you from?”; “What is the weather like in Boston?”; “What do you think about the weather in Colombia?”; “Where did you go to college?”; “What did you study?”; “What was your job in Boston?”; “What led you to want to be a missionary?”; “Are you married?”; “Do you have children?” … and so on. Then they introduce you to someone else by saying, “This is ____, and he is married with ____ kids, has a degree from ____, and used to work for ____.” … fill in the blanks … and the small talk continues.

In the 1920s, a Polish anthropologist by the name of Bronislaw Malinowski called this “phatic communication,” or what most of us refer to as “small talk.” Small talk is usually thought of as a kind of bonding ritual in which the content of the conversation is less important than its social function. In new interactions, it serves as an introduction, establishes a mood between communicants, and indicates a kind of friendly intention. It takes a little social skill and provides a tool for making a connection with another person.

As a sociologist, I’m well aware of the fact that interactions with others are more than the exchange of words. As Erving Goffman, a 20thcentury sociology professor, indicated in one of his most famous works, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), we have the ability to choose the “props” available to us in our interactions … our clothing, tone of voice, overall appearance, and so forth. As such, all of the “props” we choose, communicate something about us when we talk with others.

Note: The “props” in this interaction say a great deal.

As I reflect on small talk, there are two things that stick in my mind. After a while, when I’ve had so many similar interactions, I begin to feel as though the small talk topics somehow define me. In addition, given that everything I do, wear, etc., communicates something about me, I often feel as though I’m “on” at all times.

I suspect we all know it’s important to have small talk conversations, appreciate that it tells people a little about us and provides a foundation for future interaction. At some point, though, I think we long to move beyond simplistic exchanges. Important or not, there are moments when I feel that if that’s all we’re going to talk about, I’d rather not talk. So, I was excited to have a very different conversation one afternoon when I was out running errands and exploring the city. I walked into a small artisan’s shop that looked interesting. There were four young women in the store, two who clearly worked there and two friends keeping them company on this quiet Sunday afternoon (I was the only customer, and no one entered while I was there). They surmised (it wasn’t difficult) that I wasn’t Colombian, and started to ask me questions. We began with some of the basics as outlined above, but quickly went beyond that. They wanted to know about college students and college life, and what it was like to be an educator in a University in the United States. They asked about my hobbies, what kind of home I lived in, and how it was decorated. We talked about stenciling and quilting, raising Springer Spaniels, college course requirements, college costs and scholarships, the types of cars people drive … and the questions seemed to be never ending. In addition, they seemed as interested in my questions as they were in asking their own. In some cases, in response to my answers to their questions, they shared similarities and differences about life in Colombia.

The conversation was refreshing and interesting. I didn’t want it to end, but knew we needed to eventually go our separate ways. It occurred to me that part of why this conversation was refreshing and enjoyable was precisely because it served no other purpose than to interact. I didn’t know these young women, and am unlikely to ever see any of them again. While we were learning a great deal, our learning was happenstance, and not planned … it wasn’t like we needed anything from one another. I wasn’t “on” like I am around the church. I wasn’t concerned about the impression I was making. Since I wasn’t going to be working or interacting with these young women again, there wasn’t a need for any of the traditional informational content that builds a foundation for future interactions. We just talked … and it was great!

3 Responses to “Small Talk”

  1. Your natural gregariousness serves you well again Ted! Made me want to be a fly on the wall!


  2. Marilyn Says:

    Refreshing and thoughtful as usual!!!

    And another side to conversation. I am in Cameroon with my list of “agenda” questions with limited time to interact with many people. I almost wish I could add in more of the small talk, but will I run out of time for my “task?”

    How to get it just right???


  3. Karen Says:

    This kind of conversation is so delightful and, unfortunately, rare. I’m sure it made your day!


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