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April 9, 2013

Surface tension

Small talk that centers on what’s obvious can uncover unpleasant surprises.

I’ve never liked small talk. Idle chitchat. Elevator bullpucky. Whatever you want to call it, I’m not a fan. I suppose it’s a necessary evil, but I have a suspicion that that’s only the case because people are too cowardly to admit that they dislike it and just stop doing it.

Some of it can be nice, I guess. Talking about the weather, for example, can be great. Sometimes, when it’s quiet and you’re sitting in the dining hall with one other person sitting diagonally across from you (not directly across—that’s too much of a statement of intent), it’s not enough to look outside at the nice weather and be silent for a moment.

“Nice out today,” he says.

“Yehh.” You reply with a mouth full of broccoli. It’s one of those inexcusably huge florets.

Silence.

“It was, uh. Colder. Before. Like, last week,” you manage, making hopeful eye contact.

“Egh.”

Lovely. And to think you could’ve been looking outside at the sunshine the whole time. Though it’s cloudy now, somehow.

But really: Some small talk can be nice. Maybe it’s a little rainy out. You’re sitting in the dining hall again, this time with someone directly across from you, and that’s it. It wasn’t supposed to be this way—everyone else left at pretty much the same time while you two were still chewing your broccoli. It’s nice when rain falls—like a blanket descending thread-wise. There’s something generous about it. And there’s something peaceful about watching it. It certainly makes the broccoli easier to swallow, you think, chewing down on it for the 100th—

“Rainy.” You’re interrupted.

Your gaze turns from the window to the person sitting across from you. She’s looking at you expectantly. “What?” You heard what she said; you just can’t believe it happened.

“It’s rainy,” she repeats, nodding, as if to say, “Yes.”

“Aye.” What? Are you Braveheart? What the fuck was that?

“Uh, yeah.” That’s better. Now you can bring it home. “It’s coming down pretty hard.”

“Not as bad as last week though,” she says.

“Was that last week? I thought it was the week before.” Well, now you’re invested in it. Might as well get things right.

“Oghh.” She’s done with her broccoli; there’s no possible excuse for that noise.

With that pleasant interchange over—and now that you’re enlightened—you can go back to looking at the rain. There’s hail coming down now, obviously. Looks painful.

OK, OK, I’m not really selling this. I’m serious, though: Some small talk is fantastic. Like, imagine you’ve just gotten a haircut. I just got a haircut—a pretty dramatically short one—so I have plenty to draw on for this one.

You’re walking down a hallway in Harper and you see an acquaintance.

“Hey! Oh, you got a haircut,” she says. So, what, she doesn’t like it? Don’t say thank you.

“Th—yeah!” Close one. “See you around,” you add, quickening your pace, upset with yourself for not seizing a rare chance to say, “Nope—I got ’em all cut!” Would’ve been classic.

“Later!” Does it really look that bad? You make a note to preen in the next reflective surface you encounter.

I swear haircut small talk is usually really good. I just can’t think of a better example right now. And I honestly do think there’s something to be said for small talk. I don’t like it, overall, mostly because of everything you’ve just read—because of all those times when there’s an opportunity to point out something obvious, someone seizes that opportunity, and no one has a nice time. But, occasionally, something deeper can be revealed when one merely remarks on what’s obvious. I think that’s the reason people soldier on with small talk. It’s that hope that they’ve found the unsuspecting tip of a glorious, equally unsuspecting iceberg.

A perfect example, once again from my recent personal experience: I returned from spring break not only shorn of my sultry locks, but also a little red in the face—a lot red in the face, actually, and I mean that literally. Of course, being that we’ve just returned from SPRING BREAK, it all adds up to one thing, to one comment, that I’ve received countless times and in various forms recently: “Spent some time at the beach, did we?”

Ha. No, I didn’t. All I care to explain in regard to the way I looked (and still sort of do) is that penicillin is a hell of a drug. In turn, I’ve also realized Benadryl is a hell of a drug, and that being trapped in the busy Maroon office for several hours while you’re on it is a hell of a trip.

Now that that non-explanation is out of the way, I suppose I should admit that my gripes with small talk—at least, with the essentially superficial sort of it that I’ve superficially discussed here—are pretty personal. I’ll concede what’s probably obvious at this point, which is that at least part of the reason I have painfully awkward conversations about the weather or my hair is because I am a painfully awkward person. And I usually have painfully awkward hair, too. (I think one of my ancestors must’ve offended the founder of Supercuts at some point, and no one’s told me.) Moreover, I’m particularly annoyed with small talk as a concept right now because my most recent forays into it have left me no choice but to leave people the impression that I’ve 1) been to Bermuda now or that 2) I’m just straight-up dying.

With that in mind, I’ll end by asking you, dear reader, to really assess your own feelings on small talk and such. Also, here’s an honest parting question: Do you ever think there could be more to the tip of an iceberg than the mere fact that there’s something beneath it?

Ajay Batra is a second-year in the College majoring in English.

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