What’s the Point of Small Talk?

No matter where we go and who we meet, there’s always an icebreaker. It’s meant to dissolve inhibitions, help understand others’ likes and dislikes, and even know if they eat pizza with a fork or hands. Sometimes it goes as far as potential philosophy and Zen practices that could save the world. We use small talk to ease people into a situation and make them feel comfortable. Except, small talk doesn’t work.Small talk is often a way to kill time while we’re waiting for someone else.

We don’t care much about other people. When someone asks in a group, “So where are you from, how are you, how’s work, how’s the wife?” We smile and nod along as if it’s interesting, even though we’re far from interested.

It’s common sense. I don’t care how my colleague spent his weekend. I don’t care that my classmate’s mother made her mittens, or that her pet cat laid six kittens. It doesn’t matter to me that the new kid in school had a meltdown or that the principal fired five maintenance staff because the school had too many.

It’s ok not to care. And it’s ok to accept that. The only reason my colleague is listening to me ramble on about my Irritable Bowel Syndrome is because they’re too polite to ask me to shut up. Or too sleepy to get to work. And it’s understandable, too. It’s not their bowels, so why would they even bother?

We’re a clever species. We read articles every day about why small talk isn’t helping us in the long run or how much time we’re wasting at work chattering at the water cooler. And I’ve seen colleagues get irritable when another person strikes small conversations, whiling away time. Yet, despite knowing how futile small talk is, we still indulge in it.

Sometimes, we don’t even realise we’re doing it. When I was new in town, my cousin took me to a party because she said it’d be a great place to meet people. And I met a couple of girls. After asking their names and where they studied, I stopped talking. They were younger than I and not my type. So I didn’t force conversation. But they determined to help me get around and make more friends because my cousin had asked them to.

And so the session began. They asked me where I studied. Why I chose literature when engineering was the more sensible option, why I didn’t answer when my mother called a minute ago, where I’d love to live, what I’d do if money weren’t an object, etcetera, etcetera. I got bored after the first question, but I answered anyway — in not more than two or three sentences. However, besides my obvious resentment, they kept at it until I left without telling anyone.

And that’s what small talk does. It ruins relationships even before they begin. Sure, some people claim that it diffuses tension and helps people find common ground. But if someone forced me to talk, I’d only get bored. I’d lose respect for them because they waste my time. I’d avoid them in future because small talk makes me disconnect.

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