Weather-proofing and Cutting the Small-talk

You need three steaming shots of coffee to get you through an ordinary office day, unless you pour the first two straight on your head. There is no other way to survive the small-talk that boils and spills over around the coffee-machine and into your work. And no matter what kind of organization you work in, every morning mandatorily begins with the weather and in some cases, continues and ends with it too. If you are particularly lucky, your colleague may also tell you whether it rained in Pune yesterday, because phone conversations haven’t been spared either. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski euphemistically called this phenomenon of small talk, ‘phatic communication’.

He defines phatic communication as that type of communication which serves as a social link in interpersonal interactions and activity. It does not serve to exchange information nor is it in context with the situation at the moment.  The essence of his argument is that, “Primitively, language is a mode of action and not an instrument of reflection.” Malinowski further explains that the purpose of phatic communication is to establish a union with others through an exchange of words, the meaning of which is often irrelevant. In simple words, Malinowski suggests that small talk gets you to build familiarity and contact with new people. Other proponents of small talk claim that it prolongs conversations, develops a sense of belonging among people, centres you in the present, away from your smartphone and most importantly, saves you from awkward lulls in the conversation.

Now let us analyse each of them in detail. Humans are fundamentally animals and it is the process of evolution that differentiates human beings from animals. A rational mind is undeniably the best gift of evolution to humans. This rational mind is what drives us to search for the meaning of our existence, our identity in this world and where we are going. Socrates sought answers to complex philosophical questions through meaningful conversations with the people of Athens. This method uses questions to disprove or defend opinions and concepts. Thus, contrary to what Malinowski says, Socrates used language not only as the outcome of deep reflection but also to spark off reflection in the listener. The Socratic method is so popular that a number of universities implement them in their curriculum. Small talk definitely helps to prolong a conversation for its own sake. But the catch here is that you will always reach a dead-end with small talk and so you must be able to identify when the correct time to walk away is. The sense of belonging that phatic talk can give you is as superficial as itself. Just like trees do not form strong roots in shallow soil, one cannot base one’s sense of belonging on shallow conversations scattered around the weather or one’s outfit or the Oscars! One of the strong arguments in favour of small talk is that it avoids uncomfortable and embarrassing silences. Ironically, these silences are a result of small talk itself. “Speech is silver, silence is golden”, is an entirely different topic, but silence in conversations are actually nourishing. Unfortunately, this holds true only if you are in the middle of a deep, meaningful conversation where you can use silence to form your reply or even to absorb what the other person has said. Silences are not awkward in honest conversations; in fact, they convey that you are comfortable with each other. Why and when silence becomes uncomfortable is because you have exhausted all themes of common courtesy that form small talk and now your brain is tearing around in search of something to comment on.

When was the last time you had a conversation that you came off from feeling stimulated and contented and actively happy? That kind of happiness comes only with engaging with people at a deeper level. You can’t gauge my depth by throwing stones at me. You have to dive right in. People want to be talked to and feel connected with just like you are. They have questions brewing in their minds just like yours, looking for a release and explanation. If you are going through a hard time, you could spark off a dialogue on the inevitability of suffering, or you could talk about the institution of marriage, or conciliate on a universal definition of freedom or even question the existence of God. You may not find answers to all your questions, but you will find respite in knowing that you are not alone in seeking them. It may challenge or confirm your own views, but it will definitely help you to understand the person and yourself, because our perspectives and ideals form the core of what we are. And as Socrates would say “knowing thyself” is the crux of knowing the truth. “Good conversation”, Anne Morrow says, “is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after”. That explains why you feel so pumped up after talking to someone, particularly about common dreams, goals and ideas. So letting go of your inhibitions and discussing ideas can be the solution to your lack of creativity and motivation.

A study published in Psychology Science journal titled, ‘Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-being is related to having less small-talk and more substantive conversations” found that an average of 17.9% of our conversations consisted of small-talk whereas 35.5% were substantive. Even substantive here is related to socializing, eating and watching TV. It further goes on to demonstrate that the happiest participants spent much less time on small-talk (around one third of that of unhappy participants) and twice as much on substantive talk.

The problem is that we don’t converse anymore. We don’t discuss, we don’t debate, we don’t reflect, we don’t colloquy. We only communicate. And like the primitive man, we talk only as a mode of action.

When you talk about the book that taught you to be positive, or the movie that resonated with you or the newspaper article that kick-started a train of thought, delve deep into it and take the other person with you. They may not be passionate about books or movies, but everybody is essentially passionate about being passionate. Passion is perhaps, one of the most honest emotions and it is this honesty that binds you to the people around you. It is what gives you a true sense of belonging.

To encapsulate, meaningful conversations breed meaningful relationships and this will help you much more in your social and work life than what small talk claims to do. In this digital age, where conversations by themselves are rare, we don’t have to limit the ones we do have to vapid observations. So cut the small talk and dive deep.


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