Scholars, scientists and public intellectuals often enjoy the luxury of engaging in meaningful discussion about complex problems that are important and relevant to mankind which help further develop our understanding of the world and the nature of the universe. For the rest of us though, it’s small talk, and we’re stuck with it. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around small talk for a very long time as I’ve never felt at ease participating in it, or for that matter ever noticed I’ve improved or excelled at it. And after many years of embarrassing failures, complaining about how it’s not for me, or engaging in it is somehow beneath me, I think I’ve developed a more comprehensive understanding of the social ritual which leaves me more at peace with my disposition.
We belong in hierarchies, and whether you like it or not, you have a place in it. There are many hierarchies, depending on your metric of choice. Wealth, political power or your designation at the nine to five. Then there are metrics you are born with, like your height, the shape of your jaw and the colour of your eyes. If there’s anything we can measure, it’s a metric. The time you take to run a 5K, your bank balance, or something completely irrelevant, like say for example, how well you can bake an apple pie. People can be sorted on any metric and every individual will have a different preference on what metrics they deem more important. Your social standing is a function of who’s sorting you, based on what metrics they prefer, and position you in their perception of the social hierarchy accordingly.
We are always sorting, because we are always selecting. Not only in the context of looking for a suitable mate, but also selecting for those we trust and choose to keep around us. That’s just what we do, and conversation, especially small talk, is a very powerful tool we have at our disposal for that purpose. In a time long forgotten, before language, I suppose we selected people based on physical strength because the skillset required to survive probably started and ended with hunting, cooking and having sex. Those who didn’t make the cut probably died either in combat to a sabre-toothed tiger or collapsed from ingesting raw meat, so people didn’t feel the need to go out on dates and engage in small talk for hours just to bed someone. Nature made that decision for us. Now we live in an era where things are no longer that straightforward. We do strange things like trade stocks, upload funny videos on the internet and do digital marketing, which makes the selection process a lot more complicated.
That’s where small talk comes in. Small talk, for the function it serves in interpersonal dynamics, is like a very sophisticated distributed sorting mechanism. It differs from other types of conversation in that the topic and content of the exchange is less important than the function it serves. Nobody really cares about your weekend, the weather or if you’re having a good day or not, they’re only interested in your social position and how it compares to their own. Most if not all small talk serves that purpose. While this might seem like a very negative and hostile perspective on what usually appears like friendly banter, understand that it’s not something we do in a conscious manner. We’re always checking to see if we’re in good company to make sure we’re spending our time resourcefully. Think of it as a filter employed by everyone to test if whether they should associate with you, respect you or care about you. If conversation with depth is a test of knowledge and insight, small talk is more a test of character. Engaging repeatedly in “polite conversations about unimportant things” over a certain period of time, allows people to evaluate your position in the hierarchy more accurately.
Put simply, if you are around people, you are in conflict. Every time you text her, every time you go out for a smoke with your colleagues, every time a stranger comes at you with a seemingly harmless “Hey, how’s it going?”, you are putting yourself in a situation where your position in the hierarchy is open to reevaluation. You can come out on top of that exchange, surprise them, make an unexpected joke, leave them with a smile and charm everybody. Or you can get stepped on, be ridiculed and disrespected or say something that is misinterpreted and leaves the group confused. People will throw casual insults at you to see if you can defend yourself against them. They will craftily disrespect you for sport to see if you can use your wit to regain that lost respect. Failing repeatedly to perform in small talk results in people around you eventually forming a less favourable opinion of you. That is how your position in the hierarchy gradually drops and you slowly fall off the social radar. People stop seeking you out and you become a loner.
It’s easy to dismiss small talk as a lesser form of exchange, as though conversation with depth is somehow better than playful banter, but that I think would be a very biased and prejudiced way of looking at things. Perhaps it’s not for you, but it also happens to be an extremely important device that assists in social categorisation and helps in managing interpersonal distance. Whatever benefits lie at the other side of those interactions will always be kept away from you if you can’t perform in that space. Maybe you’re okay with it. Maybe you’re not. If you are okay with it, then there’s nothing to worry about. You don’t have to spend any of your time riddling words with lesser minds jockeying for position. Just hope they’re never standing in the way of something you want, in your career or your life in general. That’s leaving a lot of your well-being, success and happiness up to chance, so good luck with that.