David Weinberger has a nice item on small talk. Here’s a big chunk:
I’ve come to be a fan of small talk and white lies. Here’s why.
First especially when you’re meeting someone new, small talk is a sign of respect. Consider the alternative:
“Hi. I’m Betty. Pleased to meet you. Beautiful weather, don’t you think?”
“What do you think about the recent developments in taxonomy? I have a theory about latent semantic indexing…”
Small talk lets you and your interlocutor take little steps until you find ground you share.
Second, art expresses something big in something small. (If it expresses something small in something big, you leave during the intermission.) Likewise, in small talk, we express ourselves in the details of what we talk about, the words we use, the ones we don’t, how far we lean forward, how tentatively or aggressively we probe for shared ground. Because all of this is implicitly presented, it tends to give a more accurate picture of who we are and what we care about than big, explicit conversations.
Third, because small talk pokes here and there as it looks for ground, you can de-commit to it without hurting anyone’s feelings. Walking out on a heavy talk about God’s presence is history because you “think you heard your cat” is rude. Excusing yourself during a chit chat about whether Brittany Murphy is a Spring or a Winter is not nearly so.
Fourth, I guess I’m more of a constructivist than an archaeologist when it comes to social relationships. My aim isn’t to expose my buried self to you. It’s to build a conversation and then a relationship that eventually is so deep that we can’t disentangle the roots. For that, we need lots and lots of ambiguity. The only people who feel like they can adequately describe us are the ones who don’t know us.
And that’s why I’m ok with many white lies. We can’t get along with one another in the desert of sunlight. I need you not to know everything I’m doing and everything I feel. So, sorry, I’m busy that night.
I am not ok with banter, however. It’s no coincidence that I stopped bantering when I left academics. I couldn’t take the constant pressure to prove myself smarter or funnier than the person who just spoke, especially since I wasn’t.
I think a lot more is transacted in relationships than the explicit, rational exchanges. Small talk is the tip of the iceberg; I get bored of it when I start to fear that there is nothing more beneath. I can tolerate a certain amount of banter as I think it too can be part of a process of building relationship – if it holds out the prospect of leading to more iceberg and not just an endless tour of the tip.