More often disparaged than praised, small talk counts as an important social skill.
Serious thinkers often demean those who know how to exchange a few words of little consequence with new or even old acquaintances.
In the business world everyone knows that the ability to “schmooze,” thus, to engage in small talk, is invaluable.
How much business will get done if colleagues or customers or clients bare their souls or try to turn every conversation into a discussion of profound philosophical matters?
When people schmooze they connect. When thy bare their souls they think they are connecting.
In the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson derided small talk as a worthless exercise. On the other side of the debate, his contemporary, the sometime ethicist Lord Chesterfield advised his son to master the art of small talk, the better to advance his social and career prospects.
In her essay on small talk Dora Zhang revives Samuel Johnson’s description of two people talking about the weather:
Of course, the perfect obviousness of the weather is why it’s also the ultimate sign of banality. Samuel Johnson famously observed in 1758 that “when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.”
In the hands of a skilled wordsmith like Dr. Johnson, the stuff of everyday human conversation is rendered ridiculous.
Thanks to Dr. Johnson, among others, serious people make an effort to avoid small talk. They prefer to remain tongue-tied.
Better to be silent than ridiculous. When you keep silent people will assume that you are cultivating deep thoughts. When you engage in small talk they will think that you are empty-headed and inauthentic.
Picturing two mindless beings exchanging information about the weather or the baseball scores or the market closing will provoke gales of laughter in the illiterati, but if we give the matter a little thought, it is not as absurd as it seems.
When two people who have never met discuss the weather, they are connecting. They are trying to find a place where they can connect; they are looking for common ground.
They know, as John Maynard Keynes was supposed to have said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
People connect over what they hold in common.
Even when it comes to those who are near and dear to us, we spend a great deal of time communicating information, that is, objective facts. This affirms our connections and allows us to remain connected.
Why is that such a bad thing?
If the same two strangers meet in a bar or at a party or even in an elevator and launch into a discussion of their feelings, it will be more difficult for them to find common ground.
You are the ultimate authority on what you feel. No other individual can have the same relationship to your feelings.
If you share an intimate detail with someone you have never met, you are imposing an unreasonable demand. Conversation involves reciprocity, so your interlocutor will feel obliged to expose something of himself in order to complete the exchange.
But, when he does, he will feel that he has just exposed himself to a stranger. Normally, he will never want to see the other person again, the better to forget what happened.
You may call it authentic; I call it rude. You do not make a human connection by imposing yourself on another person.
If you are exposing an opinion, a stranger can choose between disagreeing and agreeing. If he does not want to be disagreeable, he will assent. Thus, the two of you have become of one mind.
But being of one mind does not mean that you have found common ground in an objective reality that any other individual would see. It means that you have established something like a folie à deux.
True enough, you have connected, but your connection has separated you from the mass of humanity. You are not in the world; you are in your own world.
Be this as it may, philosophers and psychologists tend to be contemptuous of small talk.
Zhang explains the point:
Although a sometime topic of instruction, small talk, as is clear by its very name, possesses no great stature among the arts of conversation. No one, after all, aspires to banality. So we wield our scorn for vacuous chatter like a strand of garlic, warding off the contaminating musk of inauthenticity. The allegiance to high-mindedness and substance that most of us have carefully displayed at one time or another was summed up in a recent New Yorker cartoon depicting a dinner table in ancient Greece, where a father admonishes his son: “If you don’t have anything profound to say, don’t say anything at all.” It’s no coincidence that this cartoon is set in antiquity, at the birth of Western philosophy. As a group, philosophers have been the most vocal critics of empty chatter. It wouldn’t be hard, in particular, to imagine that dinner table scene taking place chez Martin Heidegger. His 1927 Being and Time offers an analysis of Gerede, translated as “idle talk,” which forms probably the best-known philosophical critique of this phenomenon.
In the age of authenticity more people aspire to authenticity than know what it is. But, we have it on the authority of no less a philosopher than Martin Heidegger, the godfather of authenticity, that small talk or idle chatter is bad.
Heidegger’s extended the category of idle chatter to any use of language that is formulaic, that repeats commonly accepted wisdom and that expresses what everyone thinks, rather than what I think.
Authentic speech, in Heidegger’s philosophy, wells up from the depths of your soul. It is original and personal and unique to you. It might involve your latest research into Western metaphysics; it might express your sentiments about the state of German politics in 1933.
It is authentic because it is purely personal, even poetic. It is not a hodgepodge of impersonal statements that involve, not just the weather, but the conversational filler that we use to grease the wheels of human connection.
Whatever you think Heidegger meant by it all, we cannot ignore the fact that he believed that he had seen his theories come alive in the German Nazi Party.
In 1988, philosopher Thomas Sheehan wrote in The New York Review of Books, that with the new revelations about Heidegger’s Nazism, his philosophy should be read through the filter of his political activities and political beliefs.
Apparently, Heidegger became disillusioned with the Nazi Party because it was not fulfilling its potential. Still, he never renounced his membership or recanted his Nazi views. In his opinion, the inner truth and greatness of Nazism had been betrayed by Hitler’s cohorts.
Apparently Heidegger preferred the Nazism of Ernst Rohm’s Storm Troopers ( the SA) to that of the more technocratic Heinrich Himmler.
When Heidegger became rector of the University of Fribourg he set about to Nazify it. He resigned his rectorship in 1934 immediately after Hitler and Himmler liquidated Rohm and his SA in what is called the Night of the Long Knives.
Clearly, the brown shirts of the SA were not interested in connecting with people. When a member of the SA saw a Jew on the street, he was not looking to schmooze.
Rohm’s SA was in the business of threatening and intimidating prospective opponents of the Nazi regime. Its mode was street theatre and its weapons were clubs. Obviously, a man as aesthetically refined as Martin Heidegger would naturally have been drawn to the SA.
Wikipedia describes it:
Its traditional function of party leader escort had been given to the SS, but it continued its street battles with "Reds" and its attacks on Jews. The SA also attacked or intimidated anyone deemed hostile to the Nazi agenda, including uncooperative editors, professors, politicians, other local officials and businessmen.
The Storm Troopers took their socialism seriously. Wikipedia continues:
They largely rejected capitalism (which they associated with Jews) and pushed for nationalization of major industrial firms, expansion of worker control, confiscation and redistribution of the estates of the old aristocracy, and social equality.
The SA was not in the business of doing business. It did not try to reach out to the opposition or to find common ground with it. The SA worked to impose the Fuhrer’s will, his ideas and his feelings on everyone else.
The next time a Pied Piper comes along to suggest that you give up schmoozing in the name of authenticity, think twice before going along.