Small talk is cheap. Let’s bring it back

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Students at Michigan State University are being given lessons on how to chat to their fellow pupils. The pandemic, together with the rise of social media, has left students unable to have conversations with each other, and so a compulsory course has been introduced.

A guidebook, produced for the students, suggests they start a conversation by saying: “Hello, my name is [first and last name].” It then advises: “STOP! Let them tell you their name.” After this occurs, the first speaker can then briefly describe themselves, after which the guidebook advises they should again pause: “STOP! Give them the opportunity to respond.”

This seems all very amusing – “only in America” stuff – until you remember the last time you were stuck at a function next to someone who talked about themselves for three hours, without ever asking a question in return.

It’s one of life’s rare treats: have a break, have a chit-chat.Credit: iStock

Successful small talk, in truth, is becoming a rare thing.

For a start, there’s the challenge of the opening question. The most common is “And what do you do for a living?” which is fine unless the person is suddenly unemployed, gave up their last job in despair, or has caring duties which your question about paid employment appears designed to trivialise.

So don’t say that.

You can ask about children but, rather like the question about employment, it’s just as likely to land you in choppy seas of various kinds. Maybe they never had children or, worse, rather wished they hadn’t, what with the looming criminal charges and all that. Or you can chat about the weather, but that won’t get you past the entrees – unless it’s hurricane season and you are in Florida, in which case you can keep talking about the wind until the roof falls in.

It’s even worse if you think you know the person, but can’t quite remember their name. In this scenario, you just have to keep prattling away until you alight on a question that reminds you of their identity. Sir Thomas Beecham, the great conductor, once told of meeting a familiar face in London’s Burlington Arcade. He couldn’t quite place her, but some fragment of memory told him she had a sister.

“How’s your sister?” he asked, hopeful that the reply might jog his memory. Came the answer, “Still Queen.” Ah, that’s right: Princess Margaret.

One female friend plays a mental game of bingo when seated next to a male guest, wondering how many questions she can ask about him before he returns the favour. Her current record is 38. To quote the novelist Anthony Powell, she often finds herself meeting talkers of “quite unusual persistence”.

I wonder if this happens to all women, even the famous ones. At the end of a very long night, some oblivious bloke, having talked non-stop to the woman next to him for three hours in a row and having not asked a single question in return, will be afterwards asked: “So what was it like to meet Lady Gaga?”

Or Michelle Obama. Or Christine Lagarde. Or Julia Gillard.

“Oh,” he’ll be forced to say, “I did wonder who she was. Lovely manners, she hung on every word I said.”

There’s also the conversationalist who is merely awaiting a verbal cue that might allow them to seize back the conversation.

“So,” you might say, “I was on the way to my father’s funeral – he died so young – catching a train into the city…”

“A train?” the other says, cutting in. “I caught a very similar train on the way to my first job interview. Let me tell you the story…”

Or: “I once had a chance to sing with the great Bryan Ferry…”

Says the other: “Ferry! I used to catch a ferry to work. Let me describe every one of those trips in excruciating detail until you are begging for mercy and it’s time for us all to go home.”

Or words to that effect.

Such people must train on the didgeridoo, given their ability to create a constant droning sound, without ever pausing to draw breath. And remember, any question they are finally forced to ask – maybe they need a drink of water – will be devoid of any interest in the answer.

Better, perhaps, to go deep. One friend has a first up question when she’s seated next to someone new. “What’s your passion?” she asks. Then, crucially, she listens to what they say and tries to go deeper with a follow-up question.

Sometimes they return the favour. Sometimes, she says, it’s like the world’s longest job interview. But at least they are not talking about the weather – unless, of course, they are both in Florida.

Frankly, I don’t think the students of Michigan are alone. A spirited conversation between strangers, in which the ball is batted back and forth and always kept airborne with equal time in each side of the court, is becoming one of life’s sweetest, and rarest, treats.

I wish we could learn again how to do it. I’ll go first: “Hello, my name is Richard…”

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