Small talk and the social space

So now that we’ve seen how important small talk is for good social relationships, here’s an example of how not to do it.

My family had a holiday travelling around England for a month when I was 16. One Sunday we decided to visit the local Anglican church for their morning service. It was a cute little church, with a tiny congregation. Our family of five doubled the numbers and tripled the volume of the singing.

Afterwards, everyone stood politely outside on the grass together.

Now if I was in a congregation of less than five people, I would be keen to find out just who this family of visitors was. Where had they come from? Were they going to stay? Would they like to come to lunch?

One or two of the parishioners talked to my parents. This was their conversation:
Parishioner: “It’s a beautiful day today. Glad to see the sun’s out again.”
Dad (in an obvious Australian accent): “Yes, we’ve been enjoying the weather since we’ve been here. You have a beautiful church here.”
Parishioner: “Mmm yes. We had a lot of rain last week.”
Dad: “Oh really? We hadn’t arrived here then. There was no rain where we were.”
Parishioner: “Well, this time of year is always unpredictable. Pause. Have a pleasant day.”

No-one asked my parents one single question about themselves. They simply were not interested. They used small talk to be polite and to fulfil their obligations, but their purpose was to avoid our family and keep us out.

Used properly, small talk is absolutely essential to relating in the social space, but there are ways to misuse it. Some people are experts at chatting in a way that looks polite and appears gracious, but in fact they are not giving anything of their real selves away.

Small talk, used badly, can be selfish, cold, manipulative or defiant.