In Defense of Small Talk

“And how are you today?”

I like small talk. I don’t understand why it’s forever being maligned. “Make your talk big!” everyone keeps telling us. “Cease your infernal chit-chat! Your talk is disgustingly tiny. Stop your small talkings! Get to the big talks! The biggest!”

Look, I’ve got my fair share of social anxiety. Many of us do, I know. If any of you is devoid of self-consciousness and can launch into any and all topics with ease, I want to get to know you, because you sound fascinating. Email me pronto! But in the meantime, I’m going to speak for us socially anxious folks. Actually I haven’t polled the socially anxious community, because they won’t answer my calls, so I’ll just speak for myself, a more-or-less typical nervous sort.

When my social anxiety is rearing up (i.e. every time I’m out in public), it can be tough to interact. On some days, it’s a challenge to get outside. Eye contact is a hurdle I psych myself up for. Casual interactions are especially fraught. The neighbor is waving! Alert! Say something! Wave back, you idiot! If I smile at my supermarket cashier and she doesn’t smile back, I can spend the rest of the day wondering what I did wrong.

I overthink things, and employing small talk in these scenarios allows me to stop overthinking. Small talk is a comforting fallback. I know that I can say “How are you?” to my neighbor and she’ll say “Fine, how are you?” back — and sure, maybe I don’t actually know how she is, but meanwhile, we’re both human beings acknowledging the other person’s humanness and we’ve done a fine job of it. No one’s cried! Well done, all around.

Without the safety net of small talk, who knows what I might blurt out? Might I tell my dentist about how my dog spent the morning humping a throw pillow? Could happen! Could I ask my hair stylist if she ever pooped her pants at an age when a person really shouldn’t be having accidents like that? You just never know with me!

If there’s one thing I dislike, it’s silence, so I’m sorry but if asking you if you’ve read any good books lately is too boring, I’m going to end up quizzing you about your unlikeliest erotic fixation. I’m not going to like it; you’re not going to like it; but that’s where my racing brain is going to go. And then it’ll turn out that you’re my kid’s guidance counselor, and I’ll have to decide to stay home forever.

Small talk is an introduction. Small talk is the way in. Small talk is polite. You don’t know someone, you don’t march up to them and pry into their innermost secrets. You gotta earn that prying time! Which, depending on how the small talk goes, you may never be granted!

Small talk is shorthand for “I am not a lunatic who intends to break the social contract by talking weird talk about their humping dog.” Small talk, ideally, says, “I’d like to get to know you.” Let’s talk about our jobs, or how strong these drinks are. Let’s get to know each other for an hour or two, and then you can regale me with tales of your sexcapades. Or whatever kind of escapades you’ve been engaged in.

Sure, we’ve all been trapped in a conversation that remains terribly small, but I’d wager this is due to the other person being not all that interesting, or interested. Or maybe that’s on you. I don’t see how a category of talk came to be blamed.

And sometimes, small talk is all you need. I’ll tell you a little story, since we’re getting to know each other. One of my neighbors is a kindly older gentleman who sits on his stoop every day, watching people go by. I always see him when I’m walking my dog. He smiles at me and comments on the weather, or I smile at him and comment on the weather, and we agree on the weather, and then I wave goodbye. I know his first name, and that he prefers temperate weather. That is all. Our conversation is somewhat limited because English isn’t his first language, but even so, we could probably push past that, if we felt the need. We just don’t.

One day my kindly friend disappeared. Days turned into weeks and months. Even though all we said to each other was “Nice weather!” or “How about this weather?”, I worried. I considered asking one of his neighbors where he was, but he was the only resident of his building who was really committed to stoop sitting.

I mentioned it to my husband, more than once. I missed him. I tried not to worry. I worried.

Finally, I saw him. He was walking slowly toward his building, with a cane. I smiled and waved. He didn’t seem to see me. Stroke, I thought. Something bad. You don’t know him. Let him have his privacy.

I was about to turn away and hurriedly unlock my door before things got even more awkward when I heard, “Miss!” My friend was waving at me, his smile huge. I practically skipped over to him. He had suffered a leg injury, and was just back from the hospital.

He clasped my arm, smiled, and then pointed at the sky. “Beautiful,” he said. I agreed. I waved goodbye, went inside, and promptly burst into tears.

I told my husband this story. He said, “Aw, your buddy is back.” Which could be pretty sad, if you think about, but I think it’s nice.

I saw my buddy this afternoon. I was having kind of a rough day, but I went outside with my dog, and there he was. It’s too hot out, he said, but it’s going to be nice really soon. I’m telling you, it cheered me up.