Tuesday, January 24, 2012


When I was younger, I despised small talk.  Talk should be about meaningful things -- philosophy, religion, politics, science.  Moreover these topics should be tackled at the most fundamental level.  Small talk -- the weather, sports, whether the fish were biting or the deer were out -- seemed like a waste of time.  When I was a bit older, I conceded that talk didn't have to be intellectual, but could have important personal and emotional content -- one's inmost personal thoughts and fears were valid, though in a different way from Ideas.  Talking about clothes or interior decorating, on the other hand, was not just dull, but a sign of moral and intellectual emptiness.

In this I was echoing what we see in films or TV, particularly 'serious' ones -- banal conversations are a stand-in for the fact that characters are either so vacuous or so alienated from each other that they cannot talk about anything important.  More fundamentally, though, I assumed that conversation was instrumental, either toward talking about and wrestling with great topics, or learning the true self of whomever I was talking to.

This instrumental view of conversation sells people short, however.  The surface of someone's personality is assumed to be of little value, it's what's inside someone's head or heart that truly matters.  Only getting at the soul of someone makes them worth your time.  The rest of human interaction and the human experience is of little value.  In this scheme, human contact is a means, not an end, and the mundane details we spend most of our day on are without value.

These days I love small talk.  It's humanizing to talk to another person, even if it's just BSing about how much the 'skins suck this year, or what's the best deer cartridge, or how nice that necklace is and where did you get it.  And this is as it should be if we assume that talking to other people is an end, not a means -- if talk is not just a vehicle for our ideas, but a way that we connect with other people, whether they are our spouse or a stranger.  It's not just people's inmost thoughts that are important, but the mundane details of everyday life, that we spend so much time on.  Acknowledging small talk is another way to affirm that my entire life is meaningful, not just the momentous or meaningful bits.

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