Don’t hate on small talk

When you ask another UBC student how they’re doing, more often than not they will respond with comments about the weather. I’m okay, it’s just so cold out.

Or their academic stress. Ugh it’s just finals season.

Or perhaps something about the holidays. Can’t wait for the long weekend!

This is called small talk.

Every few weeks or so, I’ll see a post on Facebook, hear a guy at a party or read some think-piece bemoaning small talk. It’s a shallow waste of time that stands in the way, apparently, of much deeper, more interesting conversation.

But, say you begin speaking with someone new and you skip the small talk. Instead, you dive right into a deep analysis of your day and all the things you’re worried about for the week ahead and a troubling dream you had last night.

You’ll be considered, at a minimum, rude and at worst, crazy.

Small talk, it seems, does have a purpose.

What are we even talking about?

Martina Wiltschko is a self-described “theoretical syntactician” and a professor in UBC’s linguistics department. Small talk, she said, serves two deeply important functions.

“When you don’t know somebody very well, the goal of a conversation is to establish common ground — to understand what I believe and to know what I think you believe.”

If you don’t know someone very well, you draw on the most easily observable and broad topic available that everyone has in common: the weather. This allows the rest of the conversation to flow more smoothly, as you and your conversational partner now have something in common.

The second function of small talk has to do with your relationship with the person you’re speaking to.

“It establishes social interaction, hierarchies, bonding — all completely independent of what the content is,” said Wiltschko.

This kind of relational negotiating demonstrates the deeper mechanics beneath the simple words we speak. When you open your mouth, much more is communicated than the sounds you make. Gestures and body language and facial expressions all contribute to a deeper meaning, too.

This is why Wiltschko considers a “conversation” to be something that must occur “in real time.” Writing a letter to someone and waiting for their reply, for example, is not a conversation.

Small talk, as the very start of a conversation, is much deeper and more delicate than we’re used to assuming. And it’s highly dependent on your social group.

If you’re a student talking to another student, the small talk is often about school. But imagine if a restaurant waitress asked you how you were, and you replied, “I just hate midterms.” It would be strange because you’re not in the same social circle.

In order to make small talk with someone you must scan them for signs of a recognizable social grouping. If you were speaking to someone wearing a hijab, you would not, for instance, attempt to relate to them about Christmas.

And the way we speak in small talk is complex and ever-changing too.

“The conventionalization of the kinds of [phrases] that we use is definitely a part of our group,” said Wiltschko.

For example, when someone says, “It’s so cold out!” Canadians are used to responding, “I know, eh?” But “eh” has become highly stigmatized, especially among younger generations. The new response is “I know, right?”

It’s worth noting that “I know, right?” doesn’t exactly make sense. It’s asking the other person to agree that you know the information they just told you. But “as a group of speakers of the same language, we agree what a word [or phrase] means,” said Wiltschko.

Who are you calling “dog”?

A word’s meaning can transcend literal definition.

This means language is a kind of idea that everyone has to buy into. We all must agree that the letters “d,” “o” and “g” refer to the animal we lovingly care for in our homes when ordered to form “dog.” But there’s nothing inherently dog-like about the word itself. We just have to believe. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work.

Despite all its merit and import, small-talk is continually under-fire. Why?

“We have this impression that language is just to get things done, to share information. [We don’t] acknowledge that language just has so many more parts to it,” said Wiltschko.

Every component of language, in fact, serves a crucial purpose. Even the parts that don’t seemingly have meaning, like “um’s” and “uhh’s.”

“[When you say “um” you’re] not just running out of things to say,” said Wiltschko. There’s so much more.

All of this poses interesting questions for people new to Canadian English. How do English as an Additional Language (EAL) students fare when they first come to UBC? Do they struggle with small talk?

I have a UBC friend who is from Turkey and Syria. Only a month after he arrived here in Canada, he asked me what Canadians talk about. I struggled for an answer. It wasn’t something I’d ever thought about before. He was asking me how he should make small talk with Canadians, but also, more deeply, he was questioning the importance of small-talk.

Finally, I realized, “Canadians just love to talk about the weather.”