Small talk

Here’s a couple of lines from the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, much of which I seem to be quoting at the moment, or at least searching for inspiration within the text: 

One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in It’s a nice day, or You’re very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you all right? At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behaviour; if human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up.

After a few months’ consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favour of a new one. If they don’t keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working.

Conversation with other human beings is still the main method we use to communicate with each other, at least in a face to face manner.  There’s nothing particularly personal about email after all.

Small talk is the glue that binds social gatherings together.  Social gatherings such as weddings and house parties tend to be characterised by a lot of people standing around making small talk, usually holding a glass in one hand and a food morsel in the other.  The mouth opens and shuts, and the brain spends most of its time wondering when is the right time to attack said food morsel and whether it’s a one or two-bite canape. 

There’s nothing wrong with small talk, in fact it’s vital to the success of any conversation.  It’s like the suet the holds the Christmas pudding together.  It provides a vehicle for the good bits, and otherwise you’d just be eating mouthfuls of dried fruit laced with alcohol (actually, maybe that doesn’t sound too bad).  However, suet on its own makes for a pretty dull pudding, and small talk on its own makes for very dull conversation, and I’d argue that small talk alone becomes conversation simply to avoid the alternative: silence.

Just as Christmas pudding needs the fruit, small talk needs to be laced with occasional moments of big talk.  I define big talk as matters which are personal, matters which are important, matters which are controversial.  Small talk is the low-risk inoffensive patter that skirts these bigger topics.  

I’d like to see some rules invoked nation-wide, so that people are clear on the small talk/big talk balance.  These rules could be displayed in wedding venues, hired-out rooms above pubs, even people’s living rooms when it’s time to get the street round for Christmas drinks.  Pubs generally have pool-table rules laid out clearly next to the tables to avoid confusion and argument, and this would merely be providing the same service for social gatherings.

Here are the rules, as laid down by me.  (You should feel free to add to this list, or amend as necessary.  Once people become au fait with the rules, you might want to take your A1 sheet down from the wall, but it may be wise to have small laminated rule cards on your person, just to dish out to any surprise guests, or first-time conversationalists.)

1.  Always start with small talk

Never bring out the controversial topics too early.  Everyone likes to settle in with a nice wide loosener or half-volley, and you’ll swiftly find yourself on your own if you come in with a rant about the immigration problem in the area.  Try kicking off with a conversation about how you know the host, or maybe a query about what your conversation partner happens to be driving at the moment.

2.  Choose your moment to bring in the big talk

Wait for an appropriate prompt.  If your chosen chat-protagonist regularly uses a Boris bike (small talk), this is the moment to bring in your thoughts about the coalition’s handling of the debt crisis (big talk).  Don’t miss your chance mind, and shy away from the big talk.  Now is not the time to mention Boris’ buffoonery on HIGNFY.

3.  Some small talk is too small

There are some topics of conversation that are so small, so pointless and so clearly just a way of  avoiding silence that they should be banned from ever raising their heads.  These include questions such as how did you get here? or where are you for Christmas this year?  No-one cares.

Right, I’m off to find someone in the street to ask them whether they feel that religious belief implies the existence of a God-like being.  Wish me luck.



It’s worth getting one thing straight before I start: children in need is a good thing. Anything that raises nigh on 30 million pounds for various children’s charities cannot be anything other than a good thing. Whether one finds dancing newsreaders a little bit hackneyed and probably best left in the 70s with Angela Rippon and Morecambe and Wise, and whether it’s patently obvious that Sir Terry should have been mothballed along with Sir Bruce years back, that doesn’t make CiN anything other than a good thing. It’s a British institution; it’s proof that we’re not all greedy bankers and we’re willing to give to a good cause; it’s a good thing. Have I protested too much? Probably. Have I made my point? Hopefully.

I’ve just watched ‘teardrop’ by ‘The Collective’, which is the official CiN single. It’s a curious mix of young black British musical talent, Ed Sheerin rapping (well, speaking) in a sort of ‘mock-ghetto public-schoolboy in his bed-sit with pictures of Tupac on the wall’ accent, and an occasional focus on Gary Barlow doing what I presume is the face he would do were he to come across a run-over, though still partially alive, kitten.

It’s a terrible cover of what is a very good song. It’s basically the same music, with a lazy rap done over the top. It’s got some strings in it; you can tell this because of the Gormenghast-relic bearded chap doing some conducting in the middle of the video. But, with CiN being a good thing, even this poor song represents a case of the end justifying the means. And if one sees it as nothing but a bad song making some money for a good cause, well, it’s probably a good thing too, all in all. At least it’s better than ‘The Stonk’.

The mistake I made was to listen to the lyrics. They’re such incredible dross. It takes a while to get going, but it’s as if by the two minute mark, the lyricists decided that it was time to get all insprirational. Thus we have gems like:

1. ‘you can be anything you dream of…’

This is patently untrue. I’d like to be a professional footballer thanks. What’s that? I’m not good enough at football? But Ed Sheerin said…

2. ‘value everything you own, somebody probably dreams of the bed that you sleep on’

Nice guilt trip. As long as I own a bed, that should be enough to make me feel guilty. Unlike the rabble of x-factor types in the video, who have really had to struggle with the instant fame and fortune conferred on them.

3. ‘be anything, it’s your choice’

A similar conundrum to point 1. It may be your ambition, but very rarely is it your choice. You can be a writer, but you still need a publisher to get your words out there. You can be a singer, but you still need a record deal to get your music heard. And you’ll never be an astronaut or a footballer – best just get used to it.

4. ‘always speak your mind’

This is a bad idea. Questions such as ‘do I look fat in this?’ and ‘isn’t he such a cute baby?’ may get you into a awful lot of trouble for speaking your mind. There are times when speaking your mind is a good idea, and no-one’s trying to suggest you should be a wall-flower at all times, but there will be times when the advice is plain irresponsible.

5. ‘you can turn silver into gold with 4 coins’

A mathematical question. With one 50p coin, two 20p coins and a 10p, you can indeed turn silver into gold (a pound coin) though I’m pretty sure that they’re not made of gold. Then again, the ‘silver’ coins mentioned above are mostly nickel-alloy; nevertheless, it works mathematically, despite the confusion between colour and value of coin. Having said it, this is probably the only true part of the song, though I doubt many people will be inspired by the basic metric system of currency.

Maybe I’ve looked into things in too much depth. In fact, I know I have. But sometimes things aren’t glamorous, they don’t represent instant gratification and they don’t always end with the success you’ve worked towards or the success you deserve. Sometimes things only come with hard slog, and even then, you’re not going to be famous doing them. But you should be happy with your own achievements, even though you have to realise that you can’t do anything you want, or be anything you wish. Better to hear the truth now.

If you’re after inspiration, eschew Barlow, and head to another great man, Marcus Aurelius:

‘Be like the Rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest’