Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Art of the Schmooze

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.


Sam L. said...

And the SA was purged. The Viet Cong was purged when the North VNs took over--they might be or become deviationists.

Pseudonoma said...

A pleasure to read this. But I think you've missed the crucial subtlety of Heidegger's account of inauthenticity that makes it...well...Heidegger's (and hence authentic?). That is to say, not only does "gerede" as a devolution or falling away from the more original "rede," but also "eigentlich rede," such as the eventual discourses of philosophy, poetry, the State, etc. has its origins in "alltaeglichkeit" ---and that means the everyday connection- making small talk called gerede. Heidegger is very clear on this in a move that is unique to his thought: Authenticity is a mere "existentiell modfication" of inauthenticity. Thus when you write that Heidegger claims authentic speech "wells up from the depths of your soul" you misconstrue his unique insight. In fact, Heidegger goes so far as to say that there is no "your" in "your soul" unless it is first wrested from "Their" or "One's" soul or understanding. To miss this is to miss the entire raison d'etre for the second division of Being and Time's prospectus, namely, the "Destruktion" of the history of ontology, in which the so-called "primordial understanding of Being is to be retrieved precisely from those now formulaic traditional ontological assertions. The inauthentic harbors the authentic and is its condition of possibility.

Pseudonoma said...

"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." But "thinking twice" is precisely what distinguishes the authentic from the inauthentic. By the same token, you wouldn't have the opportunity to "think twice" without encountering the received wisdom (e.g. "inauthenticity is bad") of some pied piper. The matter is thus a complicated one. And it was Heidegger most powerfully who drew attention to this.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for clarifying these points. I was trying to get at the implications of Heidegger's thought, not so much to do a close reading of it.

I still take it that his version of authenticity had a radical individualism to it. And I grant your point that he believed that it had to be wrested from the control of Western metaphysics. It does, however, feel somewhat reactionary to want to think like Heraclitus by returning to etymological roots of words.

I also believe that one needs to ask how these theories led Heidegger to embrace Nazism? It's one thing to say that he wanted to destroy metaphysics and ontology, but for him that seemed to make pogroms acceptable. It made it difficult for him to denounce the Holocaust or to recant his Nazi views.

After all, other Nazi thinkers did agree with Heidegger to the effect that it was the advent of Socrates that represented a decisive deviation in the history of philosophy... but they also believed that the trouble with Socrates was his having been influenced by Judaic thought through the Old Testament.

Pseudonoma said...

I understand the genre of your post does not share or accommodate the same goals as a close reading --and I appreciate and enjoy your style...The one thing I was trying to show is that Heidegger makes authenticity derivative of inauthenticity...and that means he makes the I or 'self' in the sense of an "ego" derivative of the Others. I think this move ensures that Heidegger is not the radical individualist that you might want him to be....whereas in the case Sartre this claim might be advanced with far greater ease. As far as his Nazi entanglement went, it is clear that the "historical destiny of the German PEOPLE (Volk)"...and not an individualism was at stake. Indeed it was precisely the possibility of having an authentic State in the midst of what Heidegger saw to be "the two pincers" of American capitalistic nihilism and Russian communistic nihilism (both threats being consequences of an incapacity for genuine tradition and a failure to preserve the Western inheritance...i.e. an inauthenticity) that drove Heidegger to embrace the NSDAP for about two years --a move Heidegger later called his "greatest stupidity." That he wildly misjudged the actual present possibilities of Germany is now not even worth mentioning. That his thought regarding authenticity eventually led to this temptation for him certainly is. But does it really condemn the thought of authenticity or does it much more condemn the lack of any sort of appeal to something like ethics or morality or natural law or virtue etc...This lack would be present in the man himself...but this alone does not make it inextricable from authenticity as Heidegger construes it...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for giving me another opportunity to clarify my thinking on these points.

To be precise, Heidegger did not resign from the Nazi party after 2 years. He resigned from the rectorship at the U. of Fribourg. He consistently affirmed his belief in the greatness of National Socialism, but had serious objections to the way it had been put into practice.

He seemed mostly to abhor the highly organized regimented SS of Heinrich Himmler, and favored the more free wheeling SA of Ernst Rohm.

The latter was less conformist, more dramatic and more individualistic, if I may say so.

As for radical individualism, I suggest that it is best embodied in the Fuhrer principle that Heidegger proposed as an alternative to metaphysical ideas and rule following. To submit to the authority of the Fuhrer, the most radically individualistic, a man who had surpassed all rules, seems to have been Heidegger's basic idea. Later, he was disappointed in Hitler himself, but not in the concept of radical individualism in opposition to metaphysics.

As for the German Volk,let's note that it excludes certain groups of citizens, like Jews. Whatever Heidegger himself did or did not do, the fact remains that the concept, which surely inhabits Mein Kampf, is fundamentally anti-Semitic.

Moreover, the authenticity of the Volk, an authenticity that must involve giving oneself over to the will of the cult leader allows people to express something of their authentic emotions and instincts.

I believe that Heidegger would have seen the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion, as expressed by the Brown shirts as authentic and as participating in a form of radical individualism that had been established by the ultimate radical individual, Hitler.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I should have mentioned, but those who wish to read a more detailed analysis by Pseudonoma can click on his name, which is a link to his blog.