Lessons in the Quotidian: Small Talk


“The fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.” – David Foster Wallace, 2005.

First, be willing to acknowledge that small talk is a conspiracy. Nobody explicitly ‘enjoys’ it. There are no pleasures to be elicited from it. Small talk functions as a way to affirm your willingness to tolerate the existence of other human life in what should unquestionably be your universe. Small talk is device to quell awkwardness; pad out time spent with strangers and fill up the word count to your novel.

In structural terms, small talk tends to begin with an introduction; move into a topic of relevant interest; elaborate on said topic through a slim range of shared frustrations and pseudo-opinions and then peter out to tangential associations linked to from the initial topic, with the nightmare of a potential capacity of leading to an infinite regress.

For those resigned to the inevitability of small talk, there are various rhetorical and behavioural devices to make it seem more tolerable:

Minimize your potential for being approached. Effective tactics for achieving this include: constantly moving/pretending to talk on the phone. Be warned that rather counter-intuitively, pretending to be very engaged in a certain activity [reading a book/working/eating or making a sandwich] is not as effective as one might hope.

Be comfortable in your setting. Adopt a posture exuding the significance of your being in that certain place at that current moment. Remember that as a general rule, small talk is a method of repressing social anxiety and insecurities. Appearing confident will make you less approachable and allow you to control the situation more efficiently.

In the event of being dragged into a conversation with ~3+ individuals, take control as quickly as possible. Don’t think about what you’re saying. Babble. Start without a subject. They just hold you back. Feel willing to free-style and assume the interest of others. Whilst you control the conversation, you decide when you can most comfortably walk away.

Problems appear to be an instinctive and productive outlet for small talk in small social groups. There aren’t many areas people can’t ‘ sympathize’ with, since most ordinary human beings in Western culture are likely to encounter the same issues. This is the predicate most TV drama works off of.

Don’t provide any context to your problem and avoid being self-pitying. This can open up sickening avenues for platitude and euphemism. Be willing to let your audience contribute, but manipulate the conversation through regular intercessions in order to relate anecdotes back to the comfort of your initial issue.

Control your facial expression; it can’t be frustrated or particularly intrigued, this will make your audience feel uncomfortable: keep cool. If anything, seem constantly ready to say something, as this will help to make their contributions comparatively brief. This can be achieved through sharp intakes of breath at well-judged junctures in their polemics. Treat yourself to an awkward laugh, acknowledging your intrusion.

Avoid responding to the personal crises of others with euphemisms. Shrugging/accepting will make you seem far less receptive and help to minimise their willingness to engage you in future. The following phrases make up your arsenal of nonchalance:

  • Sucks to be you
  • Sounds interesting
  • Okay then
  • I can tell
  • I heard about that

In time, you will be avoided and at peace. Go forth and sulk.

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