Other than it generally being a mundane, menial and laborious social task forced upon us under the guise of keeping polite society, I don't know of it having any real use. And who keeps polite society these days anyway? Puh-lease! We live in a time of explicit viral youtube videos...nothing polite there. It's a scam, that's what it is. A time wasting exercise designed to make us feel awkward and suddenly overly conscious of every movement we make. When stuck performing the social rite of small-talk, I never know what to do with my arms - fold them? let them fall to my sides? throw them up in the air like I just don't care? I don't know!
We've all experienced the lure of small-talk. Those awkward moments that we invariably feel we need to fill with noise. You know the ones I'm talking about? I'll give you an all too common scenario that you can relate to.
You are in the elevator at work with a staff member senior to you but who is not your boss. You know their name, their title, their age and that they are going through a messy divorce. They don't even know you work in the same building as them. It's quiet in the lift. You are at the ground floor heading up to the 27th. It's only going to take about 15 seconds but because you feel incredibly uncomfortable standing there in silence, you feel an inexplicable need to fill the time with noise. The easiest way of doing this is by talking. And so it begins. It starts off with that awkward smile, nod or foot shuffle. Great, now you've got their attention and they're wondering what you'll do next to entertain them. They stand there facing you and looking you right in the eye while your own eyes dart around the small space around you. You clear your throat and try to come up with something inoffensive to say. Damn these visually non stimulating elevators that mean there is no point of interest to rest your eyes on. Finally you ask how their day's been going but before they get two words out, the elevator doors have opened. Relief.
There you have it. Neither the context, physical location, or relationship between the two protagonists matters. It's the unavoidable communication, the small-talk that forms my primary concern. It's always so hard to think of the right thing to say. Well too bad kids. For as long as we follow the antiquated rules of polite society and continue on the self destructive path to small-talk, we will need to come up with worthy topics of conversation.
Here are some tips and trivial sweet nothings that I've come up with for your benefit and can be called upon when required.
1. Use the weather as a conversation starter sparingly.
Personally, I think we have more to offer than comments about how hot or cold it has been or how the wind has been particularly gusty lately. Only discuss the elements when something truly noteworthy happens like the four day heatwave Melbourne recently experienced and seemingly will never stop talking about.
2. Sporting events/tournaments/highlights.
Knowing things about sport will generally serve you well. Even if, like me, you don't know much about what's going on, vague comments such as "What an innings!" "Those umpires are real crooks!" and, "Gee, Roger Federer is such a class act", will usually give you the nod of approval.
3. Crime stats.
Interestingly, knowing the latest warnings about sexual predators gives you community kudos as you appear alarmed and concerned for your fellow men and women. Just be careful, as knowing too much can lead to you becoming a suspect, and no one wants that.
Everyone loves a good scandal. Sex, drugs, bribery, general debauchery - when it happens, the media will latch onto it so hard, you won't be able to avoid hearing about even if you tried, so you may as well use the empty knowledge you will acquire for small-talk conversation wins.
A chat about an upcoming trip or a recent holiday destination can go a long way. A complimentary statement about looking refreshed and having a healthy glow however, may backfire, so I would avoid that.
6. The old turn around, walk away and never look back trick.
As with anything, knowing your limitations is paramount. If you're approaching a small-talk suicide mission, walk away and abort. There is no shame in that and there is nothing braver (or possibly ruder) than walking away from a conversation with someone before it's even begun.