A defense of small talk

April 10, 2019, 11:44 a.m.

Everybody hates small talk. There’s no denying it. Google defines “small talk” as, “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions.” Now, the English major in me automatically performed a close-read on this definition. Here’s how I unpacked it:

This definition of small talk literally contains the word “unimportant,” implying that no significant outcomes could ever emerge from small talk. Uncontroversial conversation suggests that no one is going to debate or question what you say — besides, what really is there to contest if someone says they’re doing well? “No, you’re not?” Furthermore, the word polite hints at the idea that small talk is only done out of courtesy, not a genuine desire to get to know each other. It designates a certain distance between the two participants in the conversation — a lack of authentic intention. Both parties often spit words back and forth in an effort to not come across as rude, to avoid awkward silences or to match the upbeat social atmosphere surrounding them.

Sure, all of this may be true. However, the question I’d raise is: Is that so bad?

Recently, the case against small talk has been made clear. Countless times, I have heard peers complain about the lack of authenticity in such conversation. People ask, “How are you?” while biking past each other, not even listening to the answer — we’d expect nothing other than a response in the affirmative, anyway. I’ll run into a friend in the dining hall and insist on getting a meal sometime, though we both know that’s not going to happen in the near future, if ever. I can’t even count the number of times I recently said the sentences, “It was good. Went back to Chicago for a bit. It was nice to get a break. How about you?” in response to the question, “How was your break?”

In this manner, I can see how small talk can be seen as a useless, mundane task we are all forced to partake in as human beings. However, I disagree with that notion. In a way, I think it is a beautiful thing — the fact that the question “How are you?” is tossed around so frequently. It’s a simple and profound thing to ask, that question. Though the person who says it may be ungenuine or incurious, the inherent meaning of the question — the language behind it — begs an interest, a caring about the person receiving the question.

How are you? How are you?

The very way in which this phrase is so commonly used — towards strangers, acquaintances and best friends alike — may be the first step in overcoming this ingenuity of which people complain. Perhaps it is not the small talk we should blame, but our own spurious intents and short attention spans.

In all aspects, I think that small talk beats no talk. In fact, thanks to small talk, strangers become acquaintances and acquaintances become friends. It is the inevitable stepping stone towards deeper discussion, the perhaps annoying but necessary way to get to know another human being just a little bit better. Besides, my best friend would not be my best friend if I had not initially asked her how her day was going on that first day of college, when the campus was filled with strangers and there was nothing to do but small talk.

Contact Angie Lee at angielee ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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