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Jan 9, 2020

Have you heard of the phrase, "Small talk"? Can you guess what it is? I have been thinking about it for a few days, as my oldest son sent me a video all about it. He dislikes it, but realized, after watching the video, that it might be more worthwhile than he had previously thought. So what is it? It is superficial, pleasant conversation that is not controversial in the slightest. It's the sort of conversation we have at a party when we have just met someone, or perhaps if you are sitting next to someone on the underground or the bus. It is non-threatening, and is supposed to be a pleasant, non-judgmental exchange of words. Some people do it a lot. I do, actually; I small talk in the grocery store, in line at the bank, with neighbors who I don't know very well, and on public transport. However, some people hate it. They see it as an unnecessary job, a burden even. "If I'm not going to talk about something that is important to me, or something that I'm really interested in, then why bother?" And that is a good question. We should spend our time wisely, and not just make noise that is meaningless. But, as the video explains, small talk is a very normal and necessary human activity. When we first meet someone, we know nothing about them. Even if someone has given us details about them, we cannot make up our own minds about them until we have spoken with them. How a person speaks, what he chooses to say or not say, how he moves, and the kind of look he gives you, all add up to give you a general impression about him. This helps you decide if you'd like to be friends, or if there is any sign of trust between you. And these are important decisions. Funnily enough, you can make these decisions based on small talk: talking about the weather, the rise in grocery prices, or whether or not the new traffic light in town is helping the traffic flow. And this is a global phenomenon; every culture has small talk. Us humans are funny creatures; we measure each other as we speak. Well, that makes sense to me. How on earth could you measure someone's character otherwise? Using language, you could say, is the quickest way to get inside someone's head. If you feel comfortable, then you can go a little deeper and find out each others' interests, work, and passions. You could look at this another way. If you went up to a total stranger at a party and asked, "How do you feel about investing in green energy to combat climate change?" That person would probably feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed. The question is a complex topic that brings up strong emotions and political views. He might not want to open up so quickly about something that is both controversial and important. So, that is why we have 'small talk'. It comes first, and prepares the way for both people to become willing to talk about deep issues. Having said that, I suppose that people who hate small talk feel that doing it is a risk because you might never reach the point of going deeper. You also might run out of time. So there is no guarantee that participating in small talk will lead to a substantial relationship or sense of agreement about important things. It is a risk that you take which might be worth it. So the next time a stranger brings up the subject of the weather, understand that this fairly superficial conversation could lead to great depths of discussion, or even friendship.