Talking small

A look at the strange nature of small talk featuring Parks and Rec references

One of the most significant things I’ve learned while working at a restaurant, along with keeping the water I pour from spilling onto a poor diner’s lap and balancing heavy trays of disregarded dishes, is how much we are compelled to talk small in our everyday lives. I’ve also learned, as a result, that I actually, really, sincerely dislike small talk.

Some of you might agree with April, on Parks and Rec:

Despite that, my outlook doesn’t hamper my cheery disposition. It doesn’t make me avoid that casual conversation with strangers, nor does it prevent me from initiating the oh-so dreaded small talk.

Why do I go on like this? Why do we all go on like this, keeping up with pleasantries that I’m certain no one finds pleasant? (I mean, are there really people out there who enjoy talking about the weather?)

There’s the social aspect of it, of course, of wanting to be polite, personable and showing your interest in another human. But for me, there’s also an another reason.

It gives me a sense of power. Despite the fact that I hate this silly social convention and know when I ask how you are, you’re going to give an ambiguous, impersonal response like ‘Good,’ and then when you ask me the same, I’m going to give an equally ambiguous, impersonal response like ‘Very well, thanks’ — Despite all that and the fact that I’m probably never going to see you again — I’m still going to uphold the societal norms of small talk because, frankly, I feel like an amicable boss when it’s over. I feel like I survived and I conquered. Like I deserve a pat on the back for being the graceful social butterfly that I am. Few things can match the relief felt after successfully talking small and keeping all awkwardness to a minimal.

Like Ann Perkins, I cherish the challenge of small talk.

Most of all, there’s the triumph of getting someone to talk geniunely. Sure usually there are exchanges like the one I mentioned above, but sometimes people will surprise me and I’ll get an answer besides “good.” It’s those rare instances of “I’ve had a long day” or “I’m just happy to be here,” where people open up with their true feelings, that makes it worthwhile. Or even the “Did you hear about the latest news in Indiana?” where I get to gain new knowledge or “What’s that book about?” where I get to share new knowledge. Sometimes people even throw you curveballs, like “What do you expect from life?” where I think about the question long after the conversation is over.

I think small talk is like running. Even the most enthusiastic experts can claim to enjoy it wholeheartedly, but sometimes it can be hard to love. Like in the middle of a marathon.

I guess what I actually dislike about small talk is the principle of it. That we first have to toil through safe, sometimes insincere topics like weather and how the day’s been so far, when making acquaintances. That’s not always the case, of course, which is why I remain eager regardless of how boring or awkward the small talk might seem at first. Because between the many painfully formal interactions you have, you’re bound to have a few authentic and enjoyable ones, where everyone isn’t just “good” or “great.”

Also, because it’s just NICE.

If you’re ever in a tough spot with small talk, just take a cue from April and Andy. You can never go wrong with fake laughter and “The economy.”

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