Don’t Cut the Small Talk

A bright orange tab flashes at the bottom of my screen: Instant Message from So-and-so. Hey what’s up? Typically, I’ll type back a nonchalant nothing really or the ever short nm for “nothing much”; when I’m feeling particularly gregarious, the occasional description of what I’m actually doing at the moment will appear – eating, reading, studying, playing Spin Blox. However, as fascinating as these things may seem to the person who just IMed me (not really), all of this pretty much amounts to idle small talk.

So why do we waste so much time on AIM, engaging in unnecessary chit-chat? Why do we insist on perpetuating pointless social rituals like shaking hands or asking about the weather? At its best, small talk is silly and harmless, at its worst, glaringly fake.

Yet, there appears to be a method to the madness.

In Laurence Wylie’s Foreword to the textbook French in Action, he illuminates the purpose of “What’s up?”:

In this ordered universe, no human being can live in isolation. We must be bound together in order to participate in an organized effort to accomplish the necessary activities of existence. This relationship is so vital to us that we must constantly be reassured of it. We test this connection each time we have contact with each other.

However, to carry out this kind of test literally each time we see each other would be too tedious. Each culture has developed the custom of greeting, which requires that we pause at least briefly with each other. All cultures I know require that a verbal exchange take place in which we talk about health  or the state of the weather or our destination. This exchange takes only a few seconds and the words have no significance in themselves; nonetheless, it is long enough for our amazingly rapid and complex nervous systems to record and process thousands, perhaps millions, of messages about each other that permit us to draw conclusions about one another and about our relationship.

From an anthropological standpoint, small talk gives us a minute opportunity to reassess where we stand within the social hierarchy. We check in with each other to reassure ourselves about our friendships and other social connections. Despite this take on the issue, however, I can’t help but think: where does the Internet and instant messaging fit into all of this?

If all the words within this ordinary exchange “have no significance in themselves” and yet, text on a screen is all you get to see from the other person, how are we really supposed to “draw conclusions about one another and about our relationship”? And what kind of meaning can we really gather from the friendly messages we are sent online? Even with thirty different smiley faces to choose from and a superfluous usage of onomatopoeias, can we really tell how someone is actually doing if all they have to do is type a simple pretty good to appease our curiosity?

Maybe we shouldn’t cut the small talk, but let’s make the effort to get off the computer and actually do it in person.


2 thoughts on “Don’t Cut the Small Talk

  1. The Internet is supposed to be a phenomenon connecting people no matter the distance. In my experience, instant messaging is great (most of the time) for any work related, data conveying, impersonal purposes. But if we can only talk chit chat, or even depend on it to initiate a conversation, it shows the fragmented, lack of context, or disconnected state of the relationship, despite the electronic connection.

    In regards to why we do this, think about the situation that has been created when “What’s up?” is the opening liner. It immediately requires the other person to take up the conversation, even if you are the one who initiated. “nm” takes the pressure off oneself and can be reversed with a “u?” We have such a vested interest in knowing how others were doing but for some reason we shy from making it a two-way street. That’s why I think social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace are so attractive, because we can see “what’s up” without having to engage with the person.

  2. I think this is a good tip for everyone since aim makes everything so impersonal. Unless your actually talking to them earnestly, your just kinda sitting there talking to them if it pleases you, sometimes just ignoring them when you feel like it.

    Take your own tip i think teehee

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