The New Socialising

I went to a party on Saturday.  I don’t often get invited to parties.  It was a perfectly good party: in a bar, with food and drink and company and though I didn’t know many of the people there, they all seemed nice and friendly.

The day after the party I finished the book ‘The Teleportation Accident’ by Ned Beauman, where the narrator of the tale states:

“Compare the Venice of the late renaissance … to the Berlin of Weimar … to whatever city would turn out to be most fashionable in 2012, and you would find the same empty people going to the same empty parties and making the same empty comments about the same empty efforts, with just a few spasms of worthwhile art going on at the naked extremities. Nothing ever changed. That was equivalence.”

If that’s his definition of equivalence then Saturday’s party gave me a sense of equivalence.  It was very similar to parties that I used to attend in the days when I attended more parties than I do now.  I wouldn’t suggest that any of my parties bear much resemblance those that went on in Isherwood’s Berlin, but they certainly bear a great similarity to each other.  The parties haven’t changed much, but the people at the parties have changed quite a lot.  I used to go to parties with other teenagers when I was a teenager myself.  I then went to university parties, then parties for people in their mid-twenties.  I am now more likely to attend Christening parties, 40th birthday parties or divorce parties.

  If one defines parties by a rather all-encompassing definition that involves a reasonable number of people who get together at a specific venue for the purpose of eating, drinking, chatting and perhaps dancing, then this is what I mean by the fact that the parties haven’t changed very much, certainly from when I was a teenager and probably from way back in the days of the Weimar.  A graph of time (x axis) versus change in party-style (y axis) would look very much like a flat-line.  If I plotted a different graph of my age (x axis) versus suitability for this kind of socialising (y axis), it would look more like the parabola above.  The far left-hand side would be me at School the far right me now aged 36 and the peak represents me around 25.

School socialising was terrible.  I knew it at the time and I know it now.  Being at a Boarding School meant that Saturday night was the only night with potential for socialising.  The pressure one felt on a Saturday was acute.  Add to this pressure a lack of funds, lack of any real social skills (especially where members of the opposite sex were concerned) and a likelihood of not being served alcohol in any decent establishment and you created a potent cocktail to guarantee social failure.  It’s not a though it was just pubs that wouldn’t serve us; we were lucky to get served alcohol in one of the local curry houses.  An order of 5 poppadoms and 5 pints of lager was common and there wasn’t much chance of making contact with the opposite sex in the window table of Amran’s in Bedford.  Likewise a lack of funds meant that one had to nurse each pint for around 90 minutes to make sure you weren’t left dry by 9pm.  The second half of the pint tasted how I imagine the dregs of lager being poured down the sink the morning after a party would taste if one were curious or desperate enough to take a sip.

By my mid-20s, I was at party peak.  Funds were no longer an issue, getting served was no longer tricky and with the ‘Loaded’ version of the New Lad dead by 2002, it was fine to wear fitted floral shirts out in public.  Many contemporaries remained incapable of talking to members of the opposite sex, instead employing the tactic of ‘separate a girl from her group of friends and then grind like there’s no tomorrow’.  It wasn’t successful.  But doing what we were doing felt about right.  Quaffing a bottle of absinthe before taking a bus to Loop bar felt like the right thing to do, with all problems associated with youth, finances and shyness removed.

But I’ve come out the other side now and I’m nearing the bottom of the parabola again.  The parties are the same but I’ve changed.  Frankly I feel a little embarrassed doing the same kind of socialising that I used to do (albeit unsuccessfully) aged 17.  I know this is my problem and few other people seem to have similar concerns, but it still leaves me pondering: What’s next?  What’s the new socialising?  Is it only canapes, dinner parties, kitchen suppers and Burial on the ipod if one wants to socialise in groups?  Or can I spend my time walking round Victorian graveyards on my own without feeling weird?

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.