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A recent Wired article grandiosely suggested banning small talk, claiming it inhibits relationships from forming. The authors bemoaned how we “seek the lowest common denominator” by discussing summer plans at dinner parties instead of sharing our worst fears.
Who in the hell wants to share their worst fears over soggy string beans?
The authors fail to recognize that the point of small talk isn’t to immediately make a best friend or soul mate. Small talk matters because your ability to gracefully suffer through it demonstrates your conversational prowess, not shortcomings, and offers a glimpse of your ability to be a polite fucking human.
People on first dates, be they the friend or romantic variety, need to be able to show that they aren’t boundary-less cretins who might pee all over the table because it’s a quirky thing to do.
“But small talk is boring!” “Small talk doesn’t grow relationships!”
Only if you don’t know how to do it right. Small talk doesn’t have to be boring and if you always think it is, consider the possibility that the bore is you.
We aren’t often taught how to make small talk interesting; we learn that there are “boring” and “shallow” topics like the weather and the latest sweater trends and it only gets interesting once you find out your friend shit their pants the day before. Which you really don’t have a right to ask them to tell you about if the two of you just met.
“You don’t get to know a person by forcing them into a charade of realness. You don’t have a right to ask about someone’s worst experiences when you’ve just met. If you can’t get through the breadsticks without hearing about your date’s dead twin sister, send yourself to therapy immediately.”
The ability to make small talk engaging and worth sitting through shows that a person is a good conversationalist and is at least decently intelligent.
You don’t have to respond to questions about the weather with flat concurrence. What truly halts a conversation, and by extension a potential friendship, is mundane agreement. If someone mentions how warm it’s been lately, offer up an amusing anecdote about your latest hunt for a decent sunscreen that won’t give you cancer. Boom. Cancer is interesting.
Ask them about what they like about their job and then complete the incredible task of actually listening to them. When someone asks you about your day, actually tell them about it. Do justice to the questions they ask (the not inappropriately personal questions) by responding thoughtfully.
The “most private thing I’m willing to admit” section on OkCupid is symptomatic of our obsession with this premature intimacy. So too is the slew of profiles that champion “real” conversation. As opposed to what? Hologram conversation?
“Let’s meet for coffee and talk about all those things we’re afraid to talk about.”
“Instead of talking about our jobs, let’s talk about our hopes and dreams and fears.”
“I love conversations that are so honest they make you sweat.”
Why is everybody so sadistic? When did wanting to make someone sweat while talking about their fears over a cup of coffee after you’ve informed them you don’t care about their job become appealing? Leaning over the table on a first date, knocking silverware aside and grabbing the napkins for emphasis, and demanding a “real” conversation isn’t meaningful and deep, à la John Cusack in “Must Love Dogs” or every romantic lead ever since 1995. It’s fucking rude.
You don’t get to know a person by forcing them into a charade of realness. You don’t have a right to ask about someone’s worst experiences when you’ve just met. If you can’t get through the breadsticks without hearing about your date’s dead twin sister, send yourself to therapy immediately.
We are simultaneously privileging and punishing those who have experienced extreme trauma by awkwardly putting those memories on display. It’s not a sign that you care to know that person; it’s a sign that you don’t care enough to take the time to get to know them.
Sanford Meisner developed an acting technique that uses repetition between scene partners to produce emotional honesty and availability within a scene. One partner will “lead” and one will repeat. The lead partner makes observations about the repeater, observations that get steadily more intense as the exercise builds. It’s not uncommon to hear things like “you’re afraid,” “you’re angry,” “you’re hiding,” and “you’re turned on.” Meisner acting classes often lead to hook-ups, fights, and admittedly some really great theater, all because of the raw vulnerability that the technique produces.
It’s great for acting. It’s not so great for real life, and both students and teachers will be the first to admit that. The technique does not involve wallowing in lived trauma but imaginary experiences. Deborah Margolin, a celebrated performance artist and playwright, believes that this separation between the imaginary world of acting and the real world is key to making a great and also healthy actor.
As she told The Atlantic, “There’s this whole thing about suffering for your art and I think that’s baloney. I tell my students not to worry about the suffering. Suffering will find you—-seek the joy.”
This paradigm of immediately transcending small talk to get to the “meaningful stuff,” which seems to almost always equate to the depressing stuff, looks and feels just like Meisner acting taken too far. One “partner” will demand that the other clear a high bar of emotionally honesty, which generally makes the other extremely uncomfortable and rightfully so.
We don’t need to suffer for our relationships. Suffering will happen and if you take the time to let the stories roll out organically, you will hear of your partner’s suffering and their joy. Let their joy take precedence.