There Is No Small Talk, Only Small Talkers: Week #28 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On the pleasures of chit-chat and talking to strangers
“Only connect!” — E. M. Forster
A couple of months ago Scott and I were out walking with our friends W. and J. when we passed a sprightly older woman, maybe in her early 70s, with a dapper male companion. The woman was wielding what looked like cross-country skiing poles, stabbing purposefully at the concrete ahead of her as she strode along. “Oh how neat!” I cried as they passed. “That looks really fun!” The older couple immediately stopped and started chatting with me. The woman explained that it was called “Nordic walking.” I asked several questions, and learned that the dapper gentleman was actually the be-poled woman’s Nordic walking coach; he gave me his business card and I told him I might give him a call. (N.B. I have not called him, nor did I have any intention of calling him. It was just a thing I said to be nice. This becomes important later.)
When we were done talking I looked up to see that Scott and W. were hanging on the periphery of the chat circle and J. was a speck in the distance on the path ahead. When we caught up to him he said, “Yeah I was just reminded of what it’s like to go out anywhere in public with Dee.” It was kindly and even affectionately said, but it was also clear that he had hightailed it out of there as soon as he sensed that a chit-chat with strangers was in the offing. Scott and W. hung around and tacitly condoned the activity, even if they didn’t participate enthusiastically. I’ve been thinking about this range of reactions ever since.
I freaking love talking to strangers I encounter throughout the day. I am not kidding when I say that the desire to have more chatting-with-strangers opportunities was a major reason I moved from Canada to the Deep South.1 My Facebook friends are familiar with my periodic rants about the unfriendliness of Vancouver, and how people there don’t greet you when you pass them on the street. During my 13 years in the city I launched several one-person campaigns to forcibly reform my neighborhood: I would resolve to make eye contact with everyone I passed on the street and offer a cheery “Hello!” no matter what the response. When you look up “quixotic” in the dictionary, there is a little picture of me greeting strangers on the streets of East Van with steely-eyed resolve; the same picture is also next to the entry for “disheartening.” The standard reaction from my hapless salutationees was a startled double-take followed by a lowered gaze and a quickened step. In the end I conceded that a single extrovert cannot change the culture of an entire metropolitan area, and I moved to Mississippi.2
But my love of stranger contact does not stop at greeting people on the street. I also insist on exchanging pleasantries with anyone who sells, buys, or processes anything for or from me.3 “How is your day going?” “Has it been busy lately?” “Any fun plans for the weekend?” These are all ways to get a conversation going with a barista or grocery-store clerk if they don’t initiate one first. Sure, sometimes they grunt in annoyance and then I back off—I’m not a sociopath. But I guesstimate that at least 9 times out of 10 there is a cheery response, and for the next one to three minutes the person serving me and I exchange light banter as we bob in a little bubble of connection, our brains pleasantly awash in feel-good neurochemicals. In the recent self-help blockbuster Burnout, authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski argue that for our reptile brains, “casual but friendly social interaction is the first sign that the world is a safe place.” They cite an experiment in which researchers directed bus and train commuters to either connect with their seatmates or remain distant: “participants reported a more positive (and no less productive) experience when they connected than when they did not.” For me, the lack of daily chit-chat is one of the low-grade, nagging reasons—along with Zoom fatigue, mask-fogged glasses, and the tyranny of the legging—that the pandemic has been so wearying. I’ve only slowly come to understand that for the past two years the universe has been withholding my daily brain drug and I’ve been in a kind of slow-motion withdrawal.
But we don’t need new-fangled neurology research to tell us that chatting with strangers is good for us. Here is George Eliot (Patron Saint of the 52 Mini-Essays Project) over 160 years ago, in her first novel Adam Bede: “It is more needful that I should have a fibre of sympathy connecting me with that vulgar citizen who weighs out my sugar ... more needful that my heart should swell with loving admiration at some trait of gentle goodness in the faulty people who sit at the same hearth with me, or in the clergyman of my own parish ... than at the deeds of heroes whom I shall never know except by hearsay.” Eliot was of course being gently ironic in her use of the word vulgar: she recognized that most of us tend to ignore, instrumentalize (not a word she would use), or even revile the strangers populating our quotidian worlds, but that a concerted practice of sympathetic identification with our fellow Earthlings has enormous psychological benefits—for us as well as for them.
I consider myself lucky to have learned the art of stranger chit-chat from a maestro—my own mother—and to have completed my training under the tutelage of my even more gifted mother-in-law. Of course when you are growing up there is not a single thing more irritating than having to stand next to your mother at the drug store counter, exploding with impatience/annoyance/embarrassment, while she asks the pharmacist about his recent trip to Florida. You feel like you will literally die if this ridiculous old-people blather keeps you from getting back to your Atari or Big Wheel for one second longer. But if you are exposed to enough of these interactions as a child, you gradually absorb their rhythms and their rules—they gradually begin to feel normal and even necessary—until the fateful day when you decide to try one out yourself. Just like a neophyte gambler hitting a jackpot on the first try, you will immediately be hooked on stranger chat if your initial attempt is at all satisfying. (And unless you happen to hit someone on a bad day—or you happen to live in Vancouver—chances are it will go well. People really do like to chat, even more than they think they do!)
As talented a gabber as my mother was, however, she could not hold a candle—no one could—to the sheer brilliance of my mother-in-law. Lyn could, and did, charm the pants off of everyone she met, whether it was the newsagent selling her a lottery ticket, a nurse taking her blood pressure, or her son’s new girlfriend. For a tyro chit-chat artist like me, running errands with Lyn and observing her in action was like trailing Mr. Miyagi around the supermarket. On one memorable occasion during the weekend of Scott’s and my wedding, she ran to the corner store on a quick errand and managed to snag a marriage proposal from a gentleman waiting in line next to her. Yet she was decidedly not a flirt; she simply enveloped everyone she met so snugly in a warm mantle of friendly kindness that she made it easy to forget you hadn’t known her your entire life.
Scott and I have logged a fair number of hours analyzing Lyn’s staggering charm, and have come up with a few theories. Part of it was her accent, an amalgam of 1950s New Zealand English and BBC Received Pronunciation that managed somehow to sound plummy and warmhearted at the same time. Second was her habit of calling absolutely everyone “Darling”—while really meaning it. I remember visiting her after her hip surgery and watching her work the hospital staff, whose harried faces would light up when Lyn addressed them: “Darling, could you just pass me that crossword?” “Darling, I’m sorry to trouble you, but could I have another pillow?” “Thank you so much, Darling.” (Lyn was in the hospital for about a week after her operation, and by the time she was discharged had received a marriage proposal from the gentleman in the room next door.) We could never definitively decide whether she was a Machiavellian genius or if it was all perfectly unconscious—and that, of course, was part of the appeal. When she “Darling”ed you, by gum you felt like a darling.4
The third and most important element of Lyn’s small-talk genius was that she was genuinely interested in everyone she spoke to. You can’t fake this part. When she asked the Darling in the checkout line next to her how they were feeling that day she actually wanted to know, would listen and pay attention to the answer, and ask follow-up questions to extend the conversation. And this is where Lyn parted ways from the day-trippers and dilettantes who merely dabble in stranger badinage—including my own mother. As a true artist of small talk, Lyn recognized that the goal is not simply to pass the time or make an instrumental interaction go down a little easier, although those are both beneficial side effects. The real goal is to attempt, for a few precious moments, to stave off the darkness.
In the recent essay “Your English Is So Good,” David Sedaris lets loose on the superficiality of most daily interactions:
The fact is that, unless we’re with friends or family, we’re all like talking dolls, endlessly repeating the same trite and tiresome lines: “Hello, how are you?” “Hot enough out there?” “Don’t work too hard!” I object to these questions, not because they’re personal but because they’re not.... I [don’t] need a fifteen-minute conversation, just some human interaction. It can be had, and easily: a gesture, a joke, something that says, “I live in this world too.” I think of it as a switch that turns someone from a profession to a person.
I felt a shock of recognition when I first read this passage, because it’s precisely how I feel about stranger chit-chat. I am more than happy to whip through the standard script—“Beautiful day!” “It sure is!” “Enjoy it while it lasts; there’s a snowstorm/heat wave on the way!” *wry chuckle*—with anyone and everyone I encounter, but I particularly cherish the chances I get to have a more off-the-track, quirky conversation. I think of it as a kind of Six Degrees of Separation for small talk: how many moves will it take me to get from “It sure is busy in here” to “It’s because I’m terrified of the dark”? It doesn’t necessarily have to be some huge deep thing (although bonus if it is); it just has to be different. It has to be human.
For example, a few months ago I was sitting on my front porch reading a book for class when a new mailman came up the front walk carrying two packages. He was having an animated conversation through his headphones, but as soon as he spotted me he cried out, “Well hello there! I hope you don’t mind if I pull you in here. I’m doing an online seminar and we’re just talking about how difficult it is to help people if they don’t want help.”
“Yes, that’s definitely true,” I replied.
“I mean, let’s say you’ve done well for yourself, and progressed beyond your place of origin, and you want to help family or friends left behind.... You can’t make them accept help.”
“I completely agree,” I replied, “You can offer, and be open, but you can’t force anyone.”
“It’s like—let’s say there was some water, and you were trying to get a dog to drink it. No, that doesn’t work, because dogs will always drink water.... But, like a pig, maybe. Or a goat. You can put water in front of a pig or a goat, but it won’t drink it just because you put it there.”
“Yessss,” I responded, thinking furiously to myself: Should I tell him? About the expression for this phenomenon that already exists? “Yes, you’re absolutely right. A pig or a goat will always just do what it wants to do.”
“You understand!” the mailman cried joyfully.
“Yes, I think I do.”
“Well, thank you for talking to me today!”
“You too! Have a great rest of your day!”
Now don’t get me wrong—there were some missed opportunities here. If the mailman and I had been physically closer together and not shouting across my front lawn, I probably would have followed up his initial query with a more direct question or two, perhaps shared a story from my own life and tacitly invited him to do the same. He was a young Black man in Mississippi, so I could only imagine the experiences that lay behind his “let’s say you’ve done well for yourself.” Maybe I would have discovered that he didn’t want to share anything more personal, and that would have been fine too. And perhaps I would have realized I’d overcommitted myself and bitten off more than I wanted to chew—this can happen in the South. (A memorable incident comes to mind wherein I was trapped for over an hour in the doorway of a chatty octogenarian while out canvassing.5) But if it had gone any differently, I wouldn’t have had the delightful experience of watching someone single-handedly auto-generate a cliché out of thin air.
The larger point, though, is that even in the space of a few minutes, a genuine connection can be made. Even if I never did learn the details of the mailman’s life struggle, we still shared a moment of musing over the proud stubbornness of the friends, family, pigs, and goats in our lives. Our heads were filled with our own thoughts and memories but there was a glowing gossamer thread of understanding, stretching down the porch steps and across the overgrown lawn, that connected us for just a minute.6 And that’s all any kind of emotional connection is, when you get right down to it: even with our closest friends, bonding moments are partly shared and partly private, partly true understanding and partly projection. Just because a moment of connection is brief or you never see the person again does not necessarily mean it’s superficial, or pointless, or meaningless. Sometimes it’s even profound, and sometimes you remember it for the rest of you life. The thing is: you never know. Until you look into the eyes of the human being waiting next to you at the DMV or handing back your credit card or standing on your front stoop, and you launch your little harpoon of chit-chat and wait to see if it lands, you just never know. Where will you catch your next shining thread of sympathetic vibration? Who will you commune with for a few burnished moments? What pigs or goats will you gently help to see the error of their ways?
Before my beloved fellow Canadians @ me: I acknowledge that the unfriendliness of Vancouver is more of a West Coast phenomenon than a Canadian phenomenon. That said, Canadians are generally more polite than Americans, the latter are more friendly. These are not the same thing.
Was it worth giving up free health care, a sane electoral system, and perhaps democracy itself in exchange for some daily “Hello there”s? Stay tuned.
If you don’t get this reference, DM me immediately. After I am done weeping with sadness on your behalf, I will introduce you to the single greatest movie of the 1980s.
Don’t try this at home. I have—and it just doesn’t work unless you are a woman of a certain age and a certain mien. I am hoping that I will age into into “Darling”hood eventually, but am prepared to accept that unless I start imitating Emma Thompson’s voice, it may never work.
Yes, yes, I know that you’re not supposed to let this happen while canvassing—there are quotas to reach. But in my defense, it was the last house of the day, and that man could taaaaaaaalk.
Eliot calls it a “fibre of sympathy” and Virginia Woolf say it’s like “being attached ... by a thin thread.” Forster’s exhortation “Only connect!” doesn’t exactly refer to this phenomenon, but rather to “the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion.” But I think it’s fair to bend Forster’s meaning a little here, since according to him the mechanism by which we learn to make this connection is the example of others who “live in fragments no longer.”