The Small Talk Puzzle

By Cyberquill 11/30/20091 Comment

A well-known New York City psychologist recently recommended the following on his radio show:

Do small talk. It’s meaningless. It’s good for you.

Although I do not recall the context which prompted the chitchat prescription, its likely aim was to promote the use of conversation as a bonding tool as opposed to a mere conduit for the exchange of utilitarian intelligence or lofty intellectual constructs. Notwithstanding the fact that the determination of meaning-lessness versus its fullness resides notoriously in the eye of the beholder, on its face the notion of enjoying the company of others by way of shuttlecocking meaningless sound waves back and forth without allowing cumbersome tidings to distract from the congenial vibe seems reasonably therapeutic, especially for patients with full-blown STDD (small talk deficiency disorder).

It just so happens that yours truly’s dexterity in the small talk arena rivals that of the average milkman attempting to perform mitral valve surgery on an Dalmatian. Indeed, your’s truly couldn’t small-talk his way out of the proverbial paper bag at a wedding reception if a crazed Afghan party crasher held an AK-47 to his temple and demanded such talk; although, on account of the strength of such incentive, he might, in fact, be able to crank out an unusually eloquent succession of perhaps two or three peppy zingers along the lines of “That’s a beautiful rifle” and “How’s your goat?” prior to falling silent due to STE (small talk exhaustion), which, in this case, would most likely be followed by his falling even silenter [sic] due to CLE (cerebral lead envenomation).

So what exactly is this “small talk” aside from that which the author of these lines can’t seem to get a hang of? By what metric are we to gauge the size of our confabulations? And are we to define “small” as (1) referring to a predefined repertoire of topics compiled over time by popular consensus, or as (2) a function not of content but of the manner in which and the depth from which we retrieve information from our neocortical data bank for subsequent articulation?

Moreover, can otherwise identical information double as either small talk or big talk depending on how it is being received by different people? For instance, does a standard-issue cocktail party proclamation like “They forcast a blizzard for tomorrow” get bigger simply by virtue of being directed–perhaps inadvertently–at a twin-engine pilot versus, say, an interior decorator? Or, for that matter, at a live-in interior decorator versus one who depends on his bicycle as a means of getting to work?

What if some well-intentioned socialite blithely remarks “I love peanut butter coated shrimp topped with heavy cream and chocolate-covered strawberries,” whereupon, at the mere sound of such ingredients, one exceptionally allergic listener breaks out in hives and collapses from psychosomatically induced respiratory arrest? And what if, in addition, an undercover gourmet chef within earshot proceeds to sucker-punch the unsuspecting shellfish afficionado for public dissemination of such blasphemous culinary combination? Having thus occasioned bedlam, does the remark itself still count as mere small talk or must it be upgraded retroactively? In other words, is talk size a function of intent or of effect?

Let us assume we’re ready and willing to heed our sagacious psychologist’s advice (“Do small talk”), and let us–for simpicity’s sake–ignore the problem of whether the observed impact of individual utterances on listeners who may have processed identical pieces of ostensibly innocuous information in wildly divergent and unpredictable ways ought to be factored in ex post facto for the purpose of talk size determination.

The issue, having been reduced to defining talk size strictly as a function of intent rather than effect, now boils down to this:

If a particular thought effortlessly floats to the surface of our consciousness, ready to be converted into sound and dispatched into our surroundings, how can we tell whether or not it qualifies as small talk? 

The answer hinges on whether we subscribe to the concept of (1) substantive small talk (SST) or (2) procedural small talk (PST).

To conscript a potentially familiar analogy into our discourse, the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution harbors the infamous “due process” clause, which has been interpreted by some as meaning “substantive” due process (in which case abortion, for example, may be considered a constitutionally protected fundamental right), by others as strictly “procedural” due process (in which case abortion is not a constitutionally protected fundamental right, at least not on Fourteenth Amendment grounds). The jurisprudential implications need not concern us here, except to introduce the terms “substance” and “procedure” as two vastly disparate entities. The first is concerned with “what,” i.e., content, the other with “how”, i.e., manner.

Substantive small talk (SST) is solely defined in terms of subject matter. On this reading, certain topics fall under small talk, others do not. Where to get the best Mojitos in town? Small talk. Alcoholism? Big talk. Oprah leaving ABC in 2011? Small talk. Should coffins of fallen soldiers be shown on TV? Big talk. The weather? Small talk. Climate change? Big talk. And so on and so forth. Hypothetically, if we were uncertain whether a particular topic belonged to the small talk family, we could simply consult a small talk dictionary and look it up. If the topic is listed, we can safely broach it. If not, we must choose another, lest we’d be flouting our sagacious psychologist’s advice by waxing unduly meaningful.

Regarding the division of topics into small talk and non-small talk such that they could be listed in an almanac of some sort, one obvious pragmatic difficulty arises: topic creep. Aside from geographic, cultural, contextual, and job-related variations with respect to which subjects are to be deemed trivial as opposed to momentous, one and the same overall subject may seesaw between small talk and big talk depending on (a) which aspects of it are being discussed, (b) the depth of subject penetration, and (c) the potential of synergistic consolidation of several small talk topics into an entirely new one which may exceed the bounds of substantive small talk. In short, the exponential growth of topic subdivisions would quickly make the U.S. Tax Code look like your average toaster manual by comparison.

Without further subdivision it would be impossible to determine, for instance, whether the topic “cats” is small talk or not. One would have to provide separate listings for “playing with cat”, “bathing cat”, “skinning cat”, “death by cat bite”, “taking cat to the vet”, etc. Obviously, the fifth entry in our list (“taking cat to the vet”) would require clarification by even further subdivision into all possible reasons for taking a kitty to the doctor. (Simply getting its shots or having a hairball removed may be considered substantive small talk. If, on the other hand, the poor feline had a terminal condition, discussing it may be regarded as crossing the line into big talk.)

As we can see, owing to the sheer volume of entries it would have to contain, our small talk encyclopedia is but a theoretical contrivance. The basic principle of substantive small talk, however, holds: If we talk about this, we are doing small talk, if we talk about that, we are not, even though many topics may resist dispassionate classification for a laundry list of reasons.

Bottom line, substantive small talk is strictly defined in terms of what is being said and has nothing to do with how the information is being retrieved from within us. Therefore, a casual statement like “What do you say about all this rain?” counts as small talk, whether it emerges from the speaker’s mind with the facility of a locust bouncing off a flower petal, or whether its production requires a series of strenuous internal computations in consequence of the circumstance that weather awareness and hence weather-related issues figure poorly in the speaker’s personal scheme of things, except, perhaps, in the context of planning a concrete weather-dependent activity, e.g., tracking quasars with a telescope. As far as SST, content is king.

Procedural small talk (PST), on the other hand, is entirely unrelated to subject matter. It is not defined in terms of what is being said but only in terms of the manner of statement composition, which, in turn, hinges on where in the speaker’s brain the about-to-be-shared information resides, more specifically the brain-tongue-path (BTP), i.e., the journey such information must undertake in order to travel from its neocortical storage folder to our organs of enunciation. In other words, PST is a function of the mental effort required to come up with conversation material.

I readily confess to know nothing about the brain, except that it includes that particular cluster of cells north of the thorax which the aforementioned Afghan party crasher would blow out of me were he to pull the trigger on his rifle. Therefore, my understanding of how information journeys hither and yon within said cluster of cells is a bit fuzzy (to say the least), although over the years I’ve heard numerous tales about axons, glia, synapses, neurotransmitters, and oodles of other whatchamacallits and thingamajigs reportedly involved in all manner of tangled sub-cranial processes, including speech production.

Given that it all seems rather complicated, the accuracy of the neurological minutia is hereby declared immaterial to this discussion. I am certain, though, that something analagous to the brain-tongue-path (BTP) exists, although I’d be willing to wager my nonexisting Fijian beachfront that whoever discovered it called it something else.

Let’s just say that all our mental files–factual and counterfactual knowledge, memories (real and false), opinions, etc.–are stored in folders, much like the folders on our computer, and that these folders are located in different locations and hence at varying distances relative to our brain’s speech factory, where information retrieved from any such folder is then converted into words to be presented via our organs of enunciation (tongue, larynx, etc.) to our interlocutors for their consideration. It follows that some units of information are rather easily collected and converted into language, whereas others must be dredged up (or, if dredging comes up empty, fabricated) via the energy-guzzling process called “thinking.”

Mental effort is anathema to procedural small talk. PST is defined as the spontaneous sharing of thoughts which naturally reside at the surface of our consciousness irrespective of subject matter. Recall that SST (substantive small talk), by contrast, refers to the sharing of thoughts that pertain to a particular range of topics only, irrespective of the actual effort required to produce such thoughts.

The small talk-gifted among us just happen to be naturally plugged into the very topics that have been inducted–via some sort of evolutionary subject matter selection process–into the Substantive Small Talk Hall of Fame. This happy confluence eliminates the need to draw a distinction between SST and PST, as individuals of such disposition easily manage to do both simultaneously. They can jabber away about the sunshine and the flowers, who got engaged to who, Melanie’s baby shower, Brandon’s bachelor party, who wore what at the Oscars, the latest televised wardrobe malfunction, Jennifer Aniston’s most recent breakup, the World Series, Superbowl, shoe shopping, purse shopping, curtain shopping, cocktail recipes, where to get the best pancakes for brunch, and on and on and on, virtually ad infinitum, and the deliberately casual and strikingly inconsequential treatment of such topics seems to cause them no effort at all. (Dexterity in one area, of course, does not necessarily negate proficiency in others. Substantive small talk virtuosos may display equal facility with big talk.)

This SST-PST overlap, alas, is missing among the officially small talk-challenged segment of the population. Although these patients–yours truly among them–are perfectly capable of beating their gums in equally effortless a fashion, what comes out of the wash generally fails to meet the classification criteria for small talk in substantive terms and is therefore liable to draw reactions from mild indignation to outright hostility–generally hovering somewhere around moderate alienation–from those on the prowl for run-of-the-mill chitchat.

Procedurally speaking, however, these tangle-tongued galoots are small-talking just like everyone else, as they are likewise merely articulating thoughts that happen to float close to the surface of their consciousness. Given, though, that these thoughts are of a more unconventional type, the speaker may inadvertently come across as shooting the breeze with a rocket launcher instead of a squirt gun, whereupon, in a doomed attempt to blend in with the crowd, he may decide to take a stab at substantive small talk and, as a result, appear as relaxed and comfortable as an actor on stage who blew his lines and is now desperately trying to adlib himself through the rest of the scene.

Do small talk. It’s meaningless. It’s good for you. I can’t say for sure, but I suppose our psychologist is advocating the practice of substantive rather than procedural small talk. Oh dear. So if somebody says “What a beautiful day,” I guess I could retort with a slightly modified version of that line (“Indeed, what a beautiful day”), followed by the forecast for tomorrow, followed by a recountal of yesterday’s meteorological conditions, and once I run out of local weather reports, I can always launch into an a capella version of “The Rain In Spain.”

Alternatively, I might as well just skip the making-a-fool-of-myself part, switch over to PST, and say what naturally comes to mind, which, in this case, would probably be something to the effect that “beautiful” means different things to different people, that certain skin types may object to the characterization of a bright blue sky as “beautiful” and much prefer cloudy days to guard against melanoma, and then I would proceed to expand upon the amorphous concept of beauty in various contexts, by which time the other person’s desire to converse with me will most likely have died on the vine, and I’ll have scored yet another all too familiar complaint about how I “can’t simply accept that it’s a beautiful day.”

Do small talk.

Easier said than done.

In fact, easier written an endless dissertation about than done.

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