Since I’m rather unskilled in the art of small talk, I take great interest whenever an incident of small talk flares up with within earshot. I’m strangely consumed by and drawn to conversations two people share which can be entirely devoid of meaning or direction, and I’m especially spellbound by those who practice it marvelously and do it in a splendid manner I can only dream of attaining. Small talk is one of those human social traits which is an instinctual and preternatural skill that some apparently wield with copious and frightening doses of brilliance.
Today I overheard a small talk exchange take place at work and even though I was allegedly busy and I should have been concentrating exclusively on work, I was slowly drawn out of workplace usefulness into a leering state of eavesdroppery while a couple of broads began chatting on the other side of my mighty cubicle wall. The subject of conversation was typically Los Angeles scintillating: the traffic commute. As with all great examples of small talk, the conversation embarked on a small insignificant topic and dizzily wound its way through a series of equally insignificant meanderings and uninspired references to equally trivial non-happenings in particular.
In the case of this office small talk conversation about the traffic commute, the conversation, which stretched about ten inglorious minutes spanning all roadside minutiae, began with the trying nature of this morning’s endless commute for one of the women. The conversation predictably diverged into matters of where she lived; and thus establishing her geographical orientation, it was then pointed out that so-and-so (in our same company) also lives in that city and he takes this route and that route, and the subject of streets and highway conditions was thus initiated at the expense of further droll observations which were batted around for a large chunk of agonizing time. Somehow the topic of traffic commutes segued into the day in general and the hectic schedule of the modern day corporate dweller who must maintain a frantic pace of crazed momentum in order to accomplish everything in a day. The subject of exercising came up. Young professional women love to talk about the gym and restaurants. But central to these offshoot baseless tidbits of fruitless conversation was the notion of work commute. Work commute could be thought of as the tree trunk in this conversation, and all the adjacent and trite side conversations that sprung from it had no more import than the main trunk idea. A mass of meaningless gibberish which filled the time. Which connected two strangers.
That’s small talk.
It is a human tool for connecting and jiving. It allows people to synchronize their social frames; it allows them to indulge in some trivial physical and social maneuvering for the sake of reaching a middle ground so that a prized social connection may thus be established, laid out like a interpersonal railroad track. Small talk, while unbearably pointless, serves a very real social function. It allows people to scope out, to snoop, to get a feel, and to understand the territorial markers and nature of the person they are trading small talk with. Small talk is usually shared with those one wants to make the effort to establish such a territorial synchronicity with in the first place. You don’t see people making small talk with those they don’t care to know. There must be a level of receptiveness. Small talk is an investment in your interpersonal future.
I view small talk in the same way I view what dogs do when they first encounter each other.
They go for the asshole. There is a gland that sits there, it secretes some nasty-ass secretion which signals a busy data stream to the sniffing dog. Notice that often, the involved dogs, oddly satisfied, continue on their way after such an intersection of hindquarters and snouts. That ass sniffing is an ingrained gesture of status connection and social jockeying. It is an instinctive reflex with interlaced layers of prospective co-existence scrawled in the subconscious.
Human small talk, enriched with vacuous niceties, is remarkably similar to the propensity of dogs to sniff each other’s assholes. Fascinating, really. I hate small talk but I suppose I can’t complain when the option is sniffing stranger’s butts…