Perhaps one of the most irksome facets of everyday life as a white upper middle class student attending a liberal arts college is small talk. It has its place and it serves its function, but I honestly take issue with a few of its shortcomings, which manifest themselves in casually oppressive ways. I believe that these problems, while felt by the everyday conversationalist, often go unnoticed, unarticulated or ignored.
To make sense of these various issues, it is worth asking what exactly small talk is for—what is its place and what is its function? An optimistic guess at the answer might suggest that it is for finding common ground.
I’d reasonably assume, coming from a background of being in situations where small talk was required of me, that in a world without small talk, common ground would be incredibly difficult to find efficiently. Questions such as “where shall we search for common ground?” and “at what point do we agree that enough common ground has been found for us to interact at the level that we expect to interact?” would stifle our ability to quickly establish connections.
But why would we want to “establish connections,” and why efficiently or quickly? The world would not go round if we couldn’t get along with each other. We couldn’t work together and we also couldn’t work (capitalism?). Perhaps it’s about forging consistent, yet shallow enough connections to persist in everyday life together.
In that case, the bar for connection might need to be really low and universal—“how are you liking the weather?” But here is where we start running into trouble; why is it more typical to inquire about the weather than it is to inquire about, say, the bowel movements of your classmate?
We don’t realize the degree to which small talk (and our interaction with others in general) is normatively pre-scripted to the detriment of its own end. By this I mean we fail to truly connect or find common ground with each other because small talk is so pre-scripted, and therefore also incredibly impersonal.
This leads me to the question—is small talk less about the people and what they talk about and more about serving a social function? What is that function if not just connecting? Is it “touching base” and maintaining a connection? Is it validation? Assessing each other’s social status? Is it an undercover two-way interview process for the position of friend?
Maybe it’s a combination of the above, which may explain why so many of us have anxiety around it. Here is where the problems with small talk arise: the medium we use to judge, connect and seek validation from one another is also a medium that is impersonal and pre-scripted, meaning we are judging each other against and connecting over and seeking validation from not one another, but from the norm.
Not only that, but the very idea of questioning the grounds of small talk while engaged in small talk is considered taboo, because you are moving the conversation out of the realm of small talk.
This leaves us with pre-determined conversations that are completely scripted by the society we currently live in. And the society we currently live in is, not to be dramatic, a settler-colonial state in late-stage capitalism designed to produce endless wealth for the rich white man and relegate everyone else to a class that cannot be reasonably referred to as “people” who are inherently deserving of basic needs, including dignity.
The point is, we perpetuate norms every day that are inherently oppressive in some way, and small talk is of course going to be one of those ways whether we are conscious of it or not. And if we know that norms, in general, reveal the society’s priorities—rich white men—then the very normative standard by which we engage in small talk is inherently oppressive, inherently exclusive and literally scripted out for us. Scripted to the point that if someone whom we would otherwise really love and connect with violates the rules of such a fragile interaction we judge them so viscerally that it feels like it is really us who is judging them, not the norms themselves.
In conclusion, I guess what I’d propose as a countermeasure of sorts, is the concept of being kind. Kind not in the “random acts of kindness” way but maybe just in such a way that your interactions with another person are a little less impersonal. I don’t think I can stress this enough: the standards that norms are there to enforce are for those aspiring to be a cool, rich, white guy—and that’s it. If we are assessing and being assessed during “small talks” then the standard we are using is usually the white guy one, and that is harmful and ridiculous.