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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
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Wednesday
Sep092015

In defense of small talk 

I like small talk. I don’t understand why it’s forever being maligned. “Make your talk big!” everyone keeps telling us. “Cease your infernal chit-chat! Your talk is disgustingly tiny. Stop your small talkings! Get to the big talks! The biggest!”

Look, I’ve got my fair share of social anxiety. Many of us do, I know. If any of you is devoid of self-consciousness and can launch into any and all topics with ease, I want to get to know you, because you sound fascinating. Email me pronto! But in the meantime, I’m going to speak for us socially anxious folks. Actually I haven’t polled the socially anxious community, because they won’t answer my calls, so I’ll just speak for myself, a more-or-less typical nervous sort.

When my social anxiety is rearing up (i.e. every time I’m out in public), it can be tough to interact. On some days, it’s a challenge to get outside. Eye contact is a hurdle I psych myself up for. Casual interactions are especially fraught. The neighbor is waving! Alert! Say something! Wave back, you idiot! If I smile at my supermarket cashier and she doesn’t smile back, I can spend the rest of the day wondering what I did wrong.

I overthink things, and employing small talk in these scenarios allows me to stop overthinking. Small talk is a comforting fallback. I know that I can say “How are you?” to my neighbor and she’ll say “Fine, how are you?” back — and sure, maybe I don’t actually know how she is, but meanwhile, we’re both human beings acknowledging the other person’s humanness and we’ve done a fine job of it. No one’s cried! Well done, all around.

Without the safety net of small talk, who knows what I might blurt out? Might I tell my dentist about how my dog spent the morning humping a throw pillow? Could happen! Could I ask my hair stylist if she ever pooped her pants at an age when a person really shouldn’t be having accidents like that? You just never know with me!

If there’s one thing I dislike, it’s silence, so I’m sorry but if asking you if you’ve read any good books lately is too boring, I’m going to end up quizzing you about your unlikeliest erotic fixation. I’m not going to like it; you’re not going to like it; but that’s where my racing brain is going to go. And then it’ll turn out that you’re my kid’s guidance counselor, and I’ll have to decide to stay home forever.

Small talk is an introduction. Small talk is the way in. Small talk is polite. You don’t know someone, you don’t march up to them and pry into their innermost secrets. You gotta earn that prying time! Which, depending on how the small talk goes, you may never be granted!

Small talk is shorthand for “I am not a lunatic who intends to break the social contract by talking weird talk about their humping dog.” Small talk, ideally, says, “I’d like to get to know you.” Let’s talk about our jobs, or how strong these drinks are. Let’s get to know each other for an hour or two, and then you can regale me with tales of your sexcapades. Or whatever kind of escapades you’ve been engaged in.

And sure, we’ve all been trapped in a conversation that remains terribly small, but I’d wager this is due to the other person being not all that interesting, or interested. Or maybe that’s on you. I don’t see how a category of talk came to be blamed.

And sometimes, small talk is all you need. I’ll tell you a little story, since we’re getting to know each other. One of my neighbors is a kindly older gentleman who sits on his stoop every day, watching people go by. I always see him when I’m walking my dog. He smiles at me and comments on the weather, or I smile at him and comment on the weather, and we agree on the weather, and then I wave goodbye. I know his first name, and that he prefers temperate weather. That is all. Our conversation is somewhat limited because English isn’t his first language, but even so, we probably push past that, if we felt the need. We just don’t.

One day my kindly friend disappeared. Days turned into weeks and months. Even though all we said to each other was “Nice weather” or “How are you, dear?” I worried. I considered asking one of his neighbors, but he was the only resident of his building who was really committed to stoop sitting. Everyone else just paid their rent and didn’t bother smiling at the neighbors.

I mentioned it to my husband, more than once. I missed him. I tried not to worry. I worried.

Then I saw him. He was walking slowly toward his building, with a cane. I smiled and waved. He didn’t respond. Stroke, I thought. Something bad. You don’t know him. Let him have his privacy.

I was about to turn away and hurriedly unlock my door before things got even more awkward when I heard, “Miss!” My friend was waving at me, his smile huge. I practically skipped over to him. He had suffered a leg injury, and was just back from the hospital.

He clasped my arm, smiled, and then pointed at the sky. “Beautiful,” he said. I agreed. I waved goodbye, went inside, and promptly burst into tears.

I told my husband this story. He said, “Aw, your buddy is back.” Which could be pretty sad, if you think about, but I think it’s nice.

I saw my buddy this afternoon. I was having kind of a rough day, but I went outside with my dog, and there he was. It’s too hot out, he said, but it’s going to be nice really soon. I’m telling you, it cheered me up.

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Reader Comments (38)

Finally! I have never seen what's wrong with small talk. People say introverts hate it, but I'm pretty introverted and I like it because I don't want to bare my soul to complete strangers. The weather! School is starting! Those apples look good! Nice ways to connect with your fellow humans without going too deep.

September 14, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteredj

I don't mind small talk either. I'm an extrovert though. My husband is a total introvert so this helps to understand what's going on in his head. Glad for a new blog post!

September 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHL

and today, you cheered me up too.

thanks. x

September 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKelley @ magnetoboldtoo

So good to read this latest post, as I too, have wondered (and worried) about you...

September 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJulie G.

I can't decide about small talk. It used to be my only vehicle for coping with all of the people at all of the places. But now I have This Huge Thing obscuring all talking topics I can think of. Like an elephant. In the room. I just keep reminding myself that the other people can't see the elephant. Recently, I've made progress in talking to people while not mentioning the elephant. Because, as I learned, acquaintances feel very uncomfortable when they realize the elephant is standing there. In conclusion, hurray for small talk. I guess.

P.S. In my comment proof-read, I deleted all the second-spaces-after-the-periods just for you, Alice.

September 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

P.P.S.
Cathy K, your mother loves you.

September 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

About a month ago, I got hired at an office job, after working from home for nearly a decade. The amount of interaction in general was really overwhelming for the first few weeks -- small talk especially. Your post was helpful in realizing its value. Thanks, Alice!

October 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

I love this post. I know just what you mean about the type of acquaintances that despite not having a deep relationship, you have a connection and worry if you don't see them. Glad your friend is OK.

October 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMauigirl

Loved this. Thank you. So good to hear from you again!

October 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDottie R.

Hi Alice,

I don't think I've ever commented on your blog. I've always felt like it would be intruding, but at the same time I felt selfish for consuming your work without giving anything back. So...sorry for being selfish and sorry for intruding.

I'm so grateful for you (and Eden, and Maggie, and MimiSmartypants) for sharing your stories/writing about your lives in this way for so many years. I don't feel completely safe with this two-way web 2.0 stuff. Facebook makes even small talk permanently public--and therefore BIG talk.

I have many buddies (in part) because going beyond buddy terrifies me. I'm a lonely misanthrope. I need people but being around them freaks me out. I got a dog (in part) because I missed my buddies after my old dog died. These small talk relationships are not small. They hold community together and keep some of us saner than we would be otherwise.

I'm glad your buddy is okay. I'm glad you shared that knowing he's okay makes you happier. The way you shared it makes me happier. Thanks.

October 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

1) Your first words to me were an enthusiastic yet reassuring "I just came from the bathroom. My hands are wet--but don't worry, it's not pee!"--so really, you EXCEL in small talk.

2) Awkward silence is one of the most brutal and effective forms of torture, for me at least. Even as I concede that it may just be awkward on my end... the other person may be 100% content with the lack of conversation and I'm the only one internally freaking out... there is no off switch for this.

3) Today is a day where your story of the man and your little conversational ritual and his disappearance and reappearance made me tear up at my desk on your behalf.

November 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia

Since this is about the value of small talk, I stopped by again to say, "Hi". Hi back?

November 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

I find it amusing that your response to your social anxiety is to make everyone around you equally uncomfortable. Seems like a vicious cycle, but it is hilarious.

January 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPhil

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