I was thinking yesterday about the why's and wherefore's of liking or loving people and along comes the Washington Post this morning with its "Spring Cleaning List" of habits/rituals that might be discarded. And within that list was the suggestion that we could all do with a little less "small talk."
One man's prattle is another man's wisdom, I guess, but since I have never been very good at extended conversations about things whose savor has been chewed to death, I read the small-talk proposal and looked for a kindred spirit -- a point of view that agreed with my point of view and salved my somewhat guilty conscience. The problem arose when I tried to find clear lines between prattle and the juicy bits.
Small talk might roughly be defined as discussions about the weather or sports or any other impersonal topic about which the speaker puts forward his or her opinions, but lacks palpable and active personal commitment. It is risk-free conversation. More, it is conversation that outstays its welcome. But when you get down to it, what conversation is not largely devoted to the beliefs and perceptions of the speaker? It is not so much the topic that's important, it's the opinions that are on parade.
As a newspaper reporter a long time ago, I went to several office parties. My perception of news people was that they were often repositories of weird and fascinating and frequently useless information. Their jobs meant they had to dig into subjects and deconstruct the particulars. How long is the average adult foot step? Can a parrot sing opera? What constitutes a "happy" animal? What codes or ciphers had been found in Shakespeare's works? News was a world in which everything was fair game -- any topic, any opinion, any activity. It was a tool for tentatively plucking out details of life and examining them in particular. This is how I saw it when I headed out to the parties -- a way to plumb and enjoy whatever weird shit anyone might have come up with.
But the parties did not live up to my expectations and after a while I stopped going. The parties were places where people drank a lot and talked about ... the office. Since I spent eight or more hours a day, five days a week, in the office, I found little or no enjoyment in chewing that cud in my free time. But I felt as if I must have missed out on some human gene, not being able to discuss endlessly what others seemed content to munch and regurgitate ... endlessly. It's not that I felt above it all or superior to the practice of small talk. It's just that I couldn't do it with much pleasure. As a social connection, I could see it and even long for it, but it simply didn't strike me as a satisfying way to connect.
It's nice to have a common denominator as a starting point in relationships. Buddhists get to know Buddhists; lawyers get to know lawyers; baseball enthusiasts get to know baseball enthusiasts. It's a starting point for warmth and reassurance. But the broad brush strokes of connection become stale if that is all there is to a particular connection. What was profound and touching ... well, maybe it's profound and touching, but what about the other stuff, the little foibles and attachments and passions? What about changing the subject from time to time? Isn't this the stuff that keeps things fresh? -- a Buddhist who had always wanted to be a pole vaulter; a lawyer who longs to sing; a construction worker who breaks down in tears at the opera; a soldier who is brought up short on the battlefield because, for a split second, everything is simply beautiful. One thing leads to the next because, well, one thing leads to the next ... endlessly. It's all alive and trying to hold it in some vice-like, comforting, small-talk grip ... well, it doesn't work, it's not true and, most of all, it's pretty boring.
Trying to draw a line between prattle and profundity is a fool's errand, but as far as words go, I guess we are all fools. Small talk is something each (wo)man recognizes, just like profundity. Silence doesn't resolve the issue any more than small talk does.
Taste is taste. I guess we would all be wise to make a careful peace with our own tastes.
So much for this morning's small talk.