Skip to content

Epstein on Small Talk

Small talk is best thought of as an art, a minor but nonetheless real one.

Photo by Redd / Unsplash

I have, I fear, a gift for small talk--it is a little gift, to be sure, but a genuine one. I say "I fear" because other people may think it not a gift but a curse. Small talk doesn't get good press. "We couldn't get beyond small talk," people say. "I'm tired of small talk," they say. Persiflage, the French call it, also badinage. Something trifling is implied: life lived in a very minor key. We small-talkers rarely talk turkey, are not overly eager to cut to the chase, never, if we can avoid it, scurry right down to the bottom line.

I'll get to what constitutes small talk presently, but consider a world without it--a world, that is, dominated by big talk. Two old friends meet on the street, and, dispensing with all small talk, one says to the other, "So, what do you think? Can the Chinese economy maintain the ethos of capitalism while under what is essentially a dictatorial communist regime?" In a sauna at an expensive spa, one woman says to the other, who has just entered, "Ah, Helene, I'm sure you've thought about death, that old joke that comes to each of us afresh." Conversation about the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, the perilous fate of ecosystems, nuclear proliferation, population growth in India, solutions to the endless troubles in the Middle East--big talk, all of it, but, as Samuel Goldwyn is supposed to have said, include me out, and thank you very much anyhow. None of it, not any, is my notion of a good time.

Who was it who returned home to his wife to report of a party he had just attended, "If it wasn't for me, I would have been bored to death"? Henry Kissinger once said that "the nice thing about being a celebrity is that when you bore people, they think it's their fault." Sounds right to me.

"I have no small talk," such people will say, unaware that there is a slight air of self-congratulation in the saying of it. What they are really saying, of course, is I have no patience with triviality; I am too deep, too penetrating to engage in the mere chitchat of small talk. On a more generous interpretation, when a person says he has no small talk, he may be admitting to a certain social ineptitude, a discomfort in the presence of strangers, a disability generally in the social realm. Such a disability, unless one happens to be a Trappist monk or an interior lineman in the NFL, can be a hardship.

As a mere small-talker ("mere" always precedes small talk, as "cheap" does journalism and "wily" used to do Ho Chi Minh), I think of the art of small talk as akin to a game we used to play with tops when I was a boy called Keep the Kettle Boiling, in which at least one top must be spinning at all times. The small-talker is, similarly, dedicated to keeping conversation going at all times. To accomplish this he must have subjects at hand that enliven the conversation with those among whom he finds himself.

Standard small-talk subjects include weather, sports, movies, food, gossip, real-estate prices. One's work, if not gone into in too great detail, is sometimes excellent fodder for small talk. People sometimes say "I hate to talk shop," but it is often the subject on which they are at their best. Shoptalk, though it may seem small, or even narrow, can also be swell. Subjects to avoid for reasonably successful small talk, at least initially, include religion, politics and especially how the world was so much superior when one was young (unless one happens to be speaking to one's exact contemporaries, who will realize that all you say is perfectly true). I'd add to the avoidance list explanations of the Los Angeles Lakers' triangle offense, and also warn against striking the note of intimacy too quickly established. " 'Well,' I said to Louis, 'if you're not willing at least to try Viagra, then, sweetie, I'm out of here.' " Poof! So am I.

Samuel Johnson, the only literary critic who qualifies for the genius category, used to cite his cousin Cornelius Ford's advice that he himself followed with great exactitude and that, taken up at a much lower power than Johnson applied it, makes good sense for the small-talker: "Obtain some general principles of every science; he who can talk only on one subject, or act only in one department, is seldom wanted, and perhaps never wished for, while the man of general knowledge can often benefit, and always please."

One doesn't think of Johnson himself as a small-talker. One thinks of him, owing to that marvelous straight man and debauchee James Boswell's presentation of him, more as a great booming pronunciamento man: "If a man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in a constant repair." Much of what Johnson says in Boswell's Life, far from keeping the kettle boiling, snuffs the flame under it right out, leaving the conversational waters cold. Many, perhaps the majority, of his remarks are pure conversation stoppers. "A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still." (Yeah, Doc, sure, right.) I don't altogether believe in Boswell's portrait of Johnson as a conversationalist. Johnson was much too well loved by too many interesting people to have been such a conversational bully. He could talk the big talk with the best of them, but, my guess is, he could also do small talk splendidly.

Small talk is best thought of as an art, a minor but nonetheless real one. Think of it as a social minuet--or, better, the early sections of the first movement of a Baroque string quartet, containing much filigree work and tentative statements of major themes that might be developed in later movements.

Read the rest at Forbes