The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion For the love of all that is holy, save small talk


I recently read, with some alarm, a deceptively lovely piece by the writer Tim Boomer in the New York Times advocating against Small Talk. Small talk, he pointed out, went on and on and said nothing. Who cares what street a person lived on or what high school friend you might have in common? (Here, I do not disagree.) Why not ditch it, Boomer goes on to say, and start saying only things to each other that were “profound” and “beautiful”?

Doesn’t he realize he’s playing with fire? Even if he only meant this to apply to the realm of dating, it is a dangerous precedent to set.

Here are some conversation starters that he suggested: “Why did you fall in love with your wife?” “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?” “What work are you passionate about?”

Winston Churchill said of democracy that it was “the worst form of government… except for all the rest that have been tried from time to time.” Small talk is the same: Perhaps it is nothing so wonderful in itself, but it is the only thing saving us from the alternative. And the alternative is a nightmare.

Yes, profound conversation sounds very well, in theory. But picture, just for a second, a world where Mr. Boomer gets his way. We would hurtle from conversation to conversation, having to share deep insights. As a Scandinavian, this sounds like having to go from place to place getting my fingernails pulled out one at a time.

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Here are two people waiting for a bus now:
Person A: Some weather we’re having.
Person B: You’re telling me!
Person A: Should have worn an extra coat!
Person B: Spring can’t come soon enough!

Nothing too revelatory, I grant you, and perhaps hellish if indefinitely extended, but here is the alternative.
Person A: Some weather we’re having.
Person B: Who is the voice you hear when your conscience speaks to you?
Person A: (long silence) My father.
(even longer silence) No, Gandalf.
(even longer silence) Is my whole life a lie?

Or another example. Here is a water cooler.
Person A: Think the Nats are going to pull it off?
Person B: They might.

Now, here is that same water cooler.
Person A: What is the warmest you’ve ever felt?
Person B: (blinks)
(blinks more)
(starts to sob) Why didn’t I go to California with Tracy Bacon when I had the chance? Things could have been so different.

You are beginning to see where this is headed. Here is a cocktail party, now.
Person A: Have you lived here long?
Person B: Since 2008.
Person A: Do you like it?
Person B: Yes. The neighborhood seems to have changed quite a bit.

Here is a cocktail party, in this hypothetical future world without Small Talk.
Person A: Have you lived here long?
Person B: Where is the one place in the world where your heart sang to you?
Person A: (long silence) My God.
(even longer silence) I should have stayed in Edinburgh, the last place I’ve ever felt truly alive.

Do you see what is happening, in just a few questions? Suddenly the world starts to come apart at the seams. Eliminate small talk, ask only the Deepest Questions which no one should ever have to tackle on an empty stomach, and suddenly everyone starts to go full “American Beauty”, rushing off to lift weights and skydive and book one-way tickets to Europe and call up Ethel out of the blue to say that really the wound has not healed. Start this plan and you would not be able to go outdoors without running into people who had gone out to get milk and then been asked, casually, as they waited in line, “When was the last time you were truly happy?” and now they are leaving for West Covina to be with Josh from summer camp.

We cannot stand for this! The author of the article was lucky enough only to stumble onto people who already knew the answers to these profound questions. He asked when they had fallen in love with their wives, and they could tell him. They had passions and were pursuing them.

But this, I feel, is not the case most of the time.

What about the rest of us?

I am, I think, about one Deep Question away from the realization that my entire life is a lie. Especially if you catch me on a day when I have not had lunch yet. Then my life is definitely a lie, the world is out to get me, I am a fraud and a hypocrite and a seething mass of rage and pain and broken dreams. But give me a sandwich and it turns out that I am living the dream and have been for years.

And now, drop me into a world where I cannot make casual conversation in the sandwich line, and the next thing you hear I will be on a small steamboat, doing things with jade. Not that this is not a noble thing to do, but if everyone did it, the world would sink into chaos. Happiness is like good street food: delicious until you analyze it closely.

Clearly the writer is lucky. Saying you love having deep conversation about people’s truths is like saying you love surprises: a sign that your life, to date, has been uniquely blessed. You have not run into the counterexample. You hear the beautiful, profound answer, not the forty minute tirade about controlled demolitions that the rest of us get.

But for the rest of us Hell, as Sartre said, is other people — asking you to tell them about why you love your wife.