Outlook's Third Annual Spring Cleaning List

Let's get rid of small talk

I grew up eavesdropping on people — parents, neighbors and strangers waiting in line for rationed food in the marketplaces in Beijing. It was the best education, as what I heard was either gossip, ranging from harmless to nasty, or lengthy discussions of politics and world affairs. People were experts on a neighbor's marriage or the failure of the Soviet Union.

One thing I did not learn from eavesdropping, which hurt me when I came to the United States, was how to carry on small talk. When I first arrived, Americans impressed me with their conversation about any topic: weather, cakes, lawn mowers, apple cider. This small talk made them look gregarious, witty and civilized. Still an eavesdropper, I was fascinated by their skill to glide in words.

But the freshness faded, as there's only so much one can say about triviality. I once asked a friend of mine how she could stand going to parties as part of her job, and she said, "I'm good at talking about nothing." But I'm not good, I confessed; I've never learned small talk.

These days, I stick to my personal policy of no small talk, which means I avoid parties and other circumstances where it is required. As a result, I have so much more time for reading. Most of the time you can start a serious conversation with a book from Page 1. If, unfortunately, a book wants to have small talk, you can certainly turn away without seeming rude.

Yiyun Li is the author, most recently, of the story collection "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl." She was a 2010 recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant" fellowship.

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