No Small Wonder: the big job of small talk
For hundreds of years, we have engaged in unimportant chit-chat.
As classes go back in-person, we’ll each be faced, once again, with one of the most daunting parts of a new semester: walking into a lecture hall and being met with a sea of unfamiliar faces. You’ll pick a seat, perhaps next to somebody else who isn’t sitting with anyone, and brace yourself. Soon enough, one of you will ask the inevitable: “sorry – what was your name?”
All too often, this will be followed with questions about your major, year of study and even which high school you went to. When there’s a lull: “man, it’s so hot. How insane has this weather been?”
I have had countless conversations with people whose names I have been given and promptly forgotten, desk-mates whose summer holidays I have learnt all about in the first five minutes before the tutorial has started, only to never sit next to them again. I’ve honed a response to the inevitable “linguistics? Is that like… learning a language?” when I tell people what my major is (for the record, “not really – it’s like the science of language”). I’m entering into my fifth year of university. I work in an office where most of my coworkers are twice my age and have barely anything in common with me. In other words, I’m a veteran of small talk.
When we ascribe a metaphoric size to language, it usually denotes importance. For example, the phrases “big questions” or “big conversations” usually refer to significant or profound instances of their respective categories. As such, what we deem “small” talk is usually the opposite: insignificant, empty exchanges, spoken to fill silence. The phrase has been used as far back as 1650, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, with almost no change to its meaning. For hundreds of years, we have engaged in unimportant chit-chat.
There is something uniquely painful about small talk. It’s awkward, it’s hollow, and worst of all, both interlocutors know it. You could sit in silence, although that would be more awkward, or you could talk about something deep, or controversial, which would be unusual and potentially isolating without first knowing where the other person stands. Initiating small talk is the verbal equivalent of pulling someone else’s bandaid off: it’s unpleasant, but we both know it has to be done at some point. At face value, it’s strange that our social expectations have evolved the way they have. Why is it a norm – and an old one at that – to have such meaningless conversations?
Luckily, as my seatmates could tell you, I happen to study the science of language. And yes, there is an answer – you just have to reconsider how you define “meaningless”.
In linguistics, there are two dimensions to constructing a word’s meaning. Semantics is the study of the relationship between words and what they refer to, while pragmatics looks at the way those words are used. We very frequently use words and language in ways that do not correlate to what we understand as their face-value, or literal, uses. We ask rhetorical questions, even though questions usually elicit responses, to suggest that the answer is implicit. We use adjectives that refer to tangible properties, like “small”, to refer to abstract nouns like “talk” to communicate something metaphorically – in this case, unimportance. This is to say: we use language to make meaning not just through our word choice, but through the way we meet and subvert linguistic expectations.
In this same pragmatic vein, we can look at speech not just as a vessel for semantic meaning, but as an act. In an article from 1925 (which, admittedly, contains outdated descriptors of Indonesian people and language), anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski coins the term “phatic communication” to describe speech with a social function, such as greetings, rather than an informative one. In 1962, linguist J. L. Austin proposed Speech Act Theory: the idea that the social functions performed by phatic speech are actually actions. Saying “I do” at the altar, for example, commits you to a marriage. Saying “sorry” can meaningfully shift the way someone perceives your remorse for a wrongful act. When we say things, we are actively making changes to the people and the world around us.
Small talk is an excellent example of speech as action. In the most cynical sense, small talk acts to fill in silence. This may seem basic, but, if silence is uncomfortable, having a routine of uncontroversial pleasantries acts to spare both interlocutors from a more awkward alternative. More charitably, though, small talk is a social act. It indicates that, at some level, both interlocutors care about the other enough to learn a few fun facts about them. Inviting people to share in their experiences and find common ground is a means of strengthening bonds in a non-intimidating way.
Even the most lambasted small talk topic – the weather – is deeper than it seems. We all experience the weather, and likely all have opinions and preferences about rain and sunshine. I get polite chuckles from my colleagues every time I excitedly tell them I was able to do washing because of how warm it was, and roll my eyes sympathetically when they lament broken umbrellas and leaky roofs during downpours. When we ask about weekends, holidays, and past schooling, we invite interlocutors onto common ground, giving them easy questions to answer as a way of indicating you care about their perspective. Small talk can be painful, especially if you’re introverted, but at its core it’s an act of kindness.
I recently caught up with a friend I met in the first year of my degree, who I hadn’t seen for years after she had been stuck in China due to COVID restrictions. We reminisced about our years of study: our favourite units, the most infuriating tutors. At one point, I mentioned my dog, and she laughed and recalled how, in the first class we’d taken together in semester two of 2019, I had told her about him when she had asked what had happened in my holidays – he, only a puppy at the time, had eaten a bee, and his little face had ballooned up in a comical way (he was fine, but the photos were funny). Four years and a global pandemic later, she still remembered that tidbit of chit chat in those moments before class. I met some of the best friends I’ve made at university by sitting next to them and awkwardly asking them their names. When I came back from my trip around Europe this year, my coworkers remembered the plans I’d told them when they’d asked what I was doing over the holidays, and we compared our experiences in the places that we’d both now been to, even if decades apart.
I like small talk. At worst, it’s a few minutes of awkward chatter that I’ll forget about in a day or two. At best, it acts as the basis of a bond that might just change your life. When you walk into that lecture theatre on the first day of classes, pick a seat next to somebody. Say hello, comment on how humid it is, or how excited you are to be back in person. Explain your major even if they may not care. Talking is part of being human – relish it, even if it’s small.