The Art of Small Talk

[I have been writing this for a while. It is a little uneven and maybe even a little bizarre.]

What if you didn’t know how to make small talk?

Small talk is not something you have, it is something created between a population of attendent speakers. Let’s call these attenedent speakers ‘players’ because they are both at once acting a sort of drama, which requires various skills, and playing a sort of game, one that has particular risks and rewards.

One of the first skills is recognising that there is good and bad small talk, judged according to its capacity to engage. Forget substance of conversation, small talk is the art of engagement. Perhaps it is a seduction, or becomes one, I am not sure. This dimension of small talk efficacy is qualitative and involves an assessment of the required nature of engagement determined by the nature of your respective players. Certain paranoic modes of shared sociality will be expressed through subjectivities demanding reassurance of their common sense. I don’t have much time for such social interactions, but perhaps you are stuck at a bbq with a political junkie of rabid energetics imperceptively assured by your gait that you are someone who needs to be informed of some cosmic anxiety or another. There are other much more positive modes of engagement that require skill and panache. Depending on your station and the number of alcoholic beverages that you can remember having consumed I suggest you can engage in four basic ways (from a combination of two basic variables):

1) Critical, transcendental. This is where you go head-to-head with whatever stupidities you assume are being sprouted by the aforementioned twit. You don’t actually have to hear what this person is saying. Normally their clothes or haircut (or especially their partner) will be a good enough indication of whatever milieu of stupidity they belong to. It involves you doing a stationary dance of contrariety and invoking whatever weapons of knee-jerk response that you think appropriate. Depending on your intentions in relation to the social event you are attending this is probably not the best way to make small talk. It involves a supreme confidence in your capacity to impose yourself in a situation through intellect or charisma. If you lack either or especially both, then perhaps you should forget I ever even mentioned this possible mode of engagement. Lastly, this mode of engagement makes the fundamental error of taking whatever is said during small talk seriously. In fact, it belies a troublesome disposition that shall see you wantonly left off guest lists — unless the host is after a little cheap entertainment — of being on the look-out to deploy your conversational sabot of mass-annoyance. The social event is much more important than you.

2) Complicit, transcendental. This mode of engagement requires a vast resource of experience. If the previous mode could be appropriately described as “radio shock jock” then this mode is “taxi driver” (although there is often confusion between the two, and in practice they speak with one voice). Here, the antagonism evident in the previous mode becomes a shared thread of interest. It is no longer two lines sharing a right angle, two vectors of butting heads, but two segments of a circle sharing a radius. Perhaps you may offer a slight disagreement to whatever position has been thus arrayed by one of your co-players, but only to the extent that it actually provides the opportunity to demonstrate that you are in fact in profound agreement with whatever essential underlying fact of reality is being discussed. Remember phrases such as “fact of reality” as it is much more powerful than the now common “it is just common sense”.

Topics of conversation that are appropriate for this form of engagement have to avoid confrontation, so think of sport or how shit shopping is ‘at this time of year’. Actually, anything to do with sport or capitalist consumption. If you are a bloke then talk about blokey things. You are on a winner if you can find someone who wants to hear you complain about how much beer cost at the Ashes. Again, this approach is not so good if you want to have sex with someone, unless, of course, the person is a bloke who looks like he despeartely wants to complain to you about how much beer cost at the Ashes. The key here is to ascertain the common ground that you share with another in terms of world view, because then the actual topic won’t matter. You can bring up anything and if you share expectations in life you will be in general agreement (or, again, disagree just enough to recognise that at the level of essential facts of reality you are in agreement, like Christians about Jesus or something, but if they are normal Christians they may not have sex with you anyway).

3) Critical, Immanent. I am not sure why you would want to engage in this manner, it is the most daring, and the most accidental. An antagonism is brought to you, a deliverence, and yet your engagement is not reactionary. How is this possible? It is a question of perspective. Humour can be used to inflict the most vicious of social injuries, and yet such humour could be simply innocent. A stumbling in the dark. It is to speak with an unproblematic appreciation of what will happen, while knowing full well that something will happen. If an appetite is both a feeling of thirst or hunger and the prehension of the concept of drink or food, then this is like an appetition of destruction [boom boom] with a radically open datum.

4) Complicit, Immanent. The red thread (or blue thread, or green, yellow, rainbow-gay-friendly, etc) is interest. Interest is the problem, small talk is the solution. Your players are conspirators. The thread of interest becomes mobile, takes flight, and needs to be cared for. The opposite of interest is boredom. If you can not posit interest as a problem in a sufficiently charming manner and pursue solutions with charismatic aplomb then you will be boring. However, there are two prospective dangers.

One is a question of endurance. Charm requires energy, but the effortless kind. The only charisma is an easy charisma. If you are working hard to pursue solutions either you are not cut out for this line of small talk or your co-players aren’t. Either way, it is at this stage that the true potentiality of the space of the social event becomes apparent. The drinks table/bar becomes a time out, and the bathroom an escape. Groups of friends are slightly trickier because they are also moving around and unless you have worked out a sophisticated secret sign language they may not be able to help you out. You have to develop an awareness of the rhythms of small talk, to know when someone’s endurance is lagging, and to be aware of others within the event who are open to small talk.

The second problem goes hand in hand with the charisma and charm required to facilitate this mode of small talk. If endurance is a problem of gradual decline in the energy required — burnout — then the second danger is an excess of energy, an over exuberance. This is the one-joke-too-far syndrome, which is not a question of bad jokes, because sometimes a bad joke is a good joke. Or the that-happened-to-me syndrom of where someone has a story to match every other story. I suffer from this malignant social condition on occassion. I have since learnt to have patience. To speak to the small talk, rather than to a single person, or simply about myself. (Well, unless I am dancing with a hawt nurse from Broome who also finds brains super-sexy:). Small talk is then carried out through gesture and without much talk at all, small or otherwise.)

It is a question of a threshold of repetition that produces an annulling series rather than a constant modulation of the interest. Tap the problem to provide small talk solutions, sure, but there is a finite concentration of potentiality within this mobile relation of engagement. Interest has to be continually modulated. An interesting story is not only as interesting as the way it is told, but as interesting as the questions asked of the story teller after it is told, and as light as the laughter that acompanies appropriate digressions, and as full as the gravitas of contrasting seriousness when silence is used to speak that which can not be spoken.

Ok they are the four. I think the last one is the most productive. There are a few fatal errors, essentially of judgement, but sometimes of execution. The first is to believe that you’re boring. Unless you are a vegetable you enjoy in the struggle of life just the same as everyone. Assessing one’s self as boring is actually a problem of self-reflection, of perspective. You are a network of potentiality, to realise it is the first step to actualising it. The longer the time you haven’t seen someone, like for two years, or an infinite amount of time (just met), the more possible material you have. Possible material is not potentiality. Sometimes the best thing to do is to bow out of small talk if you feel like you have nothing to ask. WHatever you say must be a question in statement form, and any question must actually modulate the potentiality of the possible field. Lah lah lah.

A second major problem is not properly appreciating that not everyone shares your common sense, and that the singularities of small talk are part of haeceitties that belong to events on much grander scales than a backyard bbq. They go hand in hand. The lines of fracture across which your perspective sutures common sense between the diverse baroque scales of events. Structure may be a machine for the production of events (a question of sedimentation, like a river bed), but structure also has an evental dimension (it is a question of perspective, and rivers change course).

I hope by now you realise this is not self help, even though it may help, which I hope it does. Forget the stupid fucks who tell you what to talk about, pffft… They are closet Platonicists even if they are not aware of it. Think! Stop accumalating thoughts! OK, so it is not self help because I am actually worried about being stuck with boring mofos when out and about. I am worried about the small talk. From small talk big things grow. (That may be a Spidermanism?) Two examples: You don’t just ‘get a girlfriend’, you first make a girl laugh, and she may then make you laugh, then you gaze intently and with wonder at the slights of mischief that always seem to be seen out the corner of your eye flashing across her face like a mystical little leprechaun nude at the cricket.

Is it more believable if I pitch it as self-interest and not self-help? Isn’t that interesting…

You don’t just start talking some shit about philosophy either. You know, Deleuze this, Guattari that. Isn’t good philosophical discourse a version of small talk, involving an impersonal investment in an immanent movement of thought and an appreciation of which is distrbuted across many minds? Not what is said as such, but the incorporeal movement in what is said. Bodily and discursive gesture as the vectors of an event. Cultivate the multiplicity.