Saturday, January 16, 2016

In Praise of Small Talk

Tim Boomer was traumatized. He was positively heartbroken. His long term relationship with Alejandra had “unraveled” and he did not know what to do.

So, he went into mourning over the woman he thought he would marry:

I’d met her five years earlier, and she was, in every way imaginable, an inspiration to me. She was the woman who taught me about love.

Violins, please.  But, one does not marry the woman who taught one about love. Boomer is wallowing in maudlin sentimentality. It is not an attractive trait in anyone, no less a male.

Being an actuary, someone who is especially adept with numbers, Boomer seems to have been in over his head when it came to women.

When Alejandra left him, Boomer did not know what to do. If someone had told him to suck it up he would have dissolved into a puddle of feelings.

He did what a good non-boomer does; he dropped out. He took a leave from his job as an actuary and he dropped out of America. He took an extended vacation in Costa Rica in order to learn how to surf and do yoga.

I suppose he was trying to show us how not to deal with shame. Unable to face his friends and colleagues and unwilling to think that perhaps he should move on and find someone to marry, he disappeared. Or better, he self-ostracized. 

Apparently, he had made the fair Alejandra the sum total of his social relations… the better to pressure her into staying with him… and when he lost her he felt like he had lost everything.

He picks up his story when he is down in Costa Rica driving along in a car with some newly-made friends. They see a middle aged American woman hitchhiking along the road and graciously stop to pick her up.

But, not quite.

One of the women in the car tells the hitchhiker that if she wishes to enjoy their generosity she must, as the saying goes, sing for her supper. In addition, she must tell them a story. They want this lonely hitchhiker to entertain them… otherwise they will leave her alone on the road.

Call me old fashioned but this is not my definition of generosity.

Anyway the hitchhiker sings a Rod Stewart song and tells them her love story:

“It’s interesting you ask me to tell you a story,” she said, “because I’m living in the middle of a love story right now. I came to Costa Rica one year ago and met the man of my dreams. He was selling jewelry at a stand in the market. He’s Italian, and as soon as I spoke to him I felt something I hadn’t felt in my whole life. It overtook me. Love like in the movies, but this was real.”

Do you think this was real?  She fell for a man who has a stand in a market in Costa Rica. She thought it was real because, after all, she did not know him at all. Besides, she had never felt anything like this in her life. (It's what people say when they have found a new drug.) One admires her ability to embarrass herself in front of strangers, but you have to be an aficionado of Harlequin Romances, and to believe that life imitates art to buy this story.

Boomer and his pals all buy it… up to the point where the hitchhiker avers that she has not come down to Costa Rica alone—what kind of woman do you think she is?—but has come down with her husband.

That makes for a deeply poignant romantic love story. So thought Boomer. Now you understand better why Alejandra could not stand it any longer.

In any case, Boomer was not only touched, he was moved by this story. So much so that he decided to banish small talk from his world. It’s another good way not to deal with shame. Exposing too much of yourself to someone you don’t know is shameless.

You can call the hitchhiker’s story big talk, but it was also borderline crazy. I appreciate the entertainment value, but I would not put her name very high up on the list of people I would want to befriend. If this is what Boomer is looking for in his friends and lovers, we are becoming increasingly happy for Alejandra.

Boomer has had enough of being human. He wants to become a fictional character. Thus, he decides that he will no longer accept small talk. Upon returning to Boston he has a revelation. One evening he is sitting at a bar overhearing another couple’s conversation. Because, after all, what better demonstrates good character than snooping.

He describes the scene:

Next to me at the bar was a couple on their first date. I could tell because their conversation reminded me of those awkward exchanges you have with co-workers’ spouses at Christmas parties. They opened with a discussion about their commutes to the bar. They both lived within a 10-minute bus ride, and they managed to stretch out this topic for 30 minutes.

Next up, the weather: In Boston it rains sometimes, and they had both noticed this. An hour in, they turned to the really deep stuff. One was a teacher, and the other knew a teacher. How could they be destined for anything other than true love?

Boomer is a hopeless romantic. He is awash in emotion over a hitchhiking middle aged woman who is making a fool of herself and betraying her husband, but he can only feel contempt for a couple of people who are getting to know each other by finding common ground.

You start wondering how Alejandra stayed around for so long, but you are happy that she finally came to her senses.

Anyway, the two people on the first date are getting to know each other, that is, they are establishing what might serve as the foundation of a relationship. In Boomer ‘s mind they are not on the way to finding true love… because, after all, he, an actuary is a world class expert in true love.

Boomer believed that he had a deep connection with Alejandra but that these people are discussing superficialities like bus schedules.

He sounds like one of those guys who never discuss schedules, who never coordinate their schedules with their lovers and who, when said lovers want  a more organized life, thinks that it’s a sign that their love is not true… or some such thing.

Boomer then resolved to institute a no-small-talk policy:

I thought back to a dusty roadside in Costa Rica and the woman who shared her heart with four strangers. Why couldn’t we all embrace her openness? Why did being with a stranger so often mean we couldn’t immediately talk about meaningful things?

Let’s not beat around the bush here. If hooking up is having sex with someone you do not know, then Boomer is proposing a new form of hookup culture where you bare your soul to a stranger. He does not know that once you expose that much to a stranger you are not going to get to know him or her, anyway.

Boomer explains:

Not that I would insist we talk only about heartfelt subjects; ideally, there would also be plenty of flirtatious joking and witty banter. I simply wanted to eliminate the dull droning on about facts and figures — whether it’s snowing or raining, how cold it is, what we do for work, how long it takes to get to work, where we went to school — all those things that we think we have to talk about with someone new but that tell us little about who the person really is.

Why can’t we replace small talk with big talk and ask each other profound questions right from the start? Replace mindless chatter about commuting times with a conversation about our weightiest beliefs and most potent fears? Questions that reveal who we are and where we want to go?

Actually, the person really is all those boring details. All that witty banter—we are all surprised to discover that Boomer considers himself a wit—is deceptive and seductive. And, why would you want to offer up your weightiest beliefs and most potent fears to someone you don’t know? If you do, you have a problem, especially if you offer them to someone who cannot do better than pseudo-poetic phrases like “weightiest beliefs” and “potent fears.”

When he then goes out on dates Boomer asks intrusive and potentially embarrassing questions to women he does not know:

One of the common questions I find myself asking a woman on a first date is where she has traveled. The response can quickly become a list of places, and once again we’re in résumé territory. So instead I’d ask, “What place most inspired you and why?”

Rather than ask about her job, I would ask, “What work are you passionate about?”

I wouldn’t ask about her longest relationship, as if length equals depth. Instead, I’d ask, “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?”

Boomer pronounces his intrusive questioning a success. This means that he has high self-esteem:

Since then, staying away from small talk has brought me one positive experience after another. Every date has turned into a real connection, or at worst, a funny story. All it takes is a willingness to dive into conversations that may make us uncomfortable or that many believe to be inappropriate for first encounters. After a while, though, it becomes natural to skip the facts and instead seek out our deepest thoughts and feelings.

One suspects that these dates are with different women. Boomer does not know it, but sociologist Erving Goffman astutely pointed out that the natural human reaction to overexposure is to avoid future contact with the person who has witnessed your overexposure.

In fact, Boomer is not getting to know anyone. He is looking for instant intimacy with someone he does not know and who he is not likely ever to get to know. All of those positive experiences seem to be with different women. It tells us that Boomer has found a way not to get involved with a woman because as long as he keeps his distance he cannot get hurt. 

In any event, Boomer decides to play the same game with a male colleague on a business trip:

After a month of work, I went on a business trip with a new colleague. On the first night away, I found myself engaging in one of those dull work conversations people use to fill the time. My colleague was telling me the basics of his schooling, family and home.

“So how long does it take you to get to the office?” I heard myself ask. Then I stopped in horror.

I remembered the dusty hitchhiker in Costa Rica, the dates and the meaningful connections I’d made by escaping small talk. Even though my colleague and I weren’t on a date, we would still be spending a lot of time together in the foreseeable future, on business trips both short and long.

I took a deep breath and asked, “Why did you fall in love with your wife?”

He looked at me oddly, thought about it for a moment and then told me something beautiful.

In how many ways is this wrong? First, the question is too intrusive. Second, collegial relationships are not fostered but are undermined by telling people beautiful stories. Third, men do not sit around at bars and ball games telling each other how they fell in love with their wives. Fourth, the hitchhiker’s story was not beautiful. It did not create a meaningful connection. It was pathetic. Fifth, if the man’s wife hears that he told Boomer this story, she will believe that her husband betrayed their intimacy and privacy.
If you want to be smart, if you want to advance your career, if you want to have good relationships… always begin with small talk. If you want your relationships to fail as miserably as Boomer’s did, you should follow his advice. In his attempts to create a new form of relating Boomer has shown us why Alejandra dumped him. And he has also found a way to protect himself from every getting close to another human being.


JPL17 said...

What a sad story. Boomer is a completely lost soul, yet so proud of his cluelessness.

Even sadder is realizing there are many thousands of "Boomers" out there, who, like him already in their 30s, will probably never grow up.

Perhaps saddest of all is that an institution as influential as the NY Times puts its seal of approval on such tripe by publishing it. (And speaking of which, Stuart, my sincere thanks to you for reading the NY Times so I don't have to.)

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Well said....

Ares Olympus said...

JPL17 says "many thousands like him already in their 30s, will probably never grow up."

I wonder how one can guess whether a person will "grow up". I guess the assumption is because Boomer is so enamored by the idea of "heartfelt depth" that he's willing to tell the world about this grand vision in hopes others will join him, but why would we believe such idealism never matures?

My own discovery about overexposure perhaps occurred when I was in college and went to all night parties where there was a fair amount of drinking, although I never drank myself, but I did find you could find out things about people when they were under the influence that you otherwise may never know. And perhaps it was all very interesting to me since I was introverted and had no great interest in making all social mistakes myself, so it was good when people told me their experiences of things I'd never do.

I suppose that reminds me in general that young people are largely insecure and stupid, and that drugs and alcohol are good ways to be insecure and stupid, while disassociating their ego with that behavior. Like "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." Pretending no one has the right to judge what you expose under the influence. It might work, especially if everyone else is trashed too.

I think Jung ended up with a similar idea, minus the drugs and alcohol, but allowed a ritual space where people could explore different parts of their psyche, and get to know themselves that way, especially parts of themselves that they might not like, or that have been judged negatively, so the idea was to get in touch with the "shadow" parts of ourselves, so these parts won't influence us quite as unconsciously, and perhaps where we can reclaim parts of ourselves we've previously judged negatively, like trying to separate aggression versus assertiveness is a tricky thing.

Stuart: sociologist Erving Goffman astutely pointed out that the natural human reaction to overexposure is to avoid future contact with the person who has witnessed your overexposure.

I don't know if I've heard of Erving Goffman before, but its easy to imagine that outcome, whether you're the one overexposing, or witnessing it in another. Like the modern phrase TMI "Too much information", a warning that no further details are needed.

And perhaps this "cost" is why young people do pass through a number of different social circles, and they get to experiment with a different part of their personality with each, and if they find themselves disliked there, they can move on to a different circle and "erase" their overexposure and pretend it never happened.

It is curious to think that nearly ALL the people I know who talk about growing up in small towns LEAVE and look back only negatively, seeing it as a place of gossip and disrespect, and then feel much more comfortable in the big city, where no one knows anything about anyone, unless you tell them.

OTOH, perhaps the people who STAY in those small towns are the ones who really appreciate knowing people "deeply", as in life-time friendships, where you've seen others at their worst, and seen how people calm down and figure things out, and you don't need to judge or control them. And the people who leave only remember the sting of unwanted exposure, and then perhaps try to regain that lost world in random "depth" encounters for the rest of their lives, as perhaps Boomer really will do?

You never know, although sociologists may want to write books to help us do things right the first time, so we don't have to throw people away when we're doing with them. It's sensible to listen to the best advice before ignoring it.

Ares Olympus said...

Here's a 4Min video that discusses some of Goffmann's ideas: Erving Goffman - Interaction Ritual
In this animated video, we use the concepts "line", "face", and "expressive order" to illustrate how Erving Goffman explains social interaction in everyday life.

Or this 2 minute one from the BCC Erving Goffman and the Performed Self
Do you have a fixed character? Or do you play many roles depending on the situation?

Erving Goffman argued that we display a series of masks to others, enacting roles, controlling and staging how we appear and constantly trying to set ourselves in the best light. If this is true do we have a true self or are we endlessly performing?
I wonder how Boomer would respond to this sort of social conflict, with all his openness idealism?

It also reminds me of Scott Peck's community building, and he follows something similar perhaps relating small talk to his "Pseudocommunity" where differences are suppressed for the sake of social order, but breaks down when conflicting points of view can't be ignored any more.

The final thought I wonder about is where "status" fits in. They say some people, perhaps like Trump are "shameless", and we can consider he has the freedom to be shameless because of his status, whether by claims of wealth or direct social power.

So a person who is fearless in his social interactions can expose anything he likes, as all as no one has the power to shame him, to threaten his status. So in this sense, a person like Boomer in his random encounters has raised his status by not caring about outcomes, so he is free to expose as he likes.

And if someday his actuary work, plus prudent investments earns himself 2-8 billion dollars all the great lessons he learned in his random encounters on how to charm strangers can be used to for social tyranny to force his view as the only correct one, and surround himself by yes men who will agree.

And if you disagree, its because blood is coming out of your eyes, or somewhere.

Dennis said...

GOD, Mother Nature or what ever you want to believe or not believe in is pretty smart in having all kinds of choices in men/women. If you took a bell curve and populated with women/men with attributes and traits that might appeal at the right tail there would be a small number of women/men who would be a very good to a perfect match for you and at the other left tail would be women or men who would be a disaster. If one moves through from the disasters to the very good the degree of ability to connect improves. Sometimes we do not select those who are perfect for us, but are none the less a good match. There can be problems when one does find someone who is a better match. The permutations are almost infinite because love is hard to define for each person.
All this just says life can present all kinds of challenges and one needs to learn from them an move on. While one is feeling sorry for themselves one may miss that person who would be their partner. I suspect all of us have that first love, then the love that is so intense as to almost consume us and further on a love that is lasting because it has more than just love. I still have a warm spot in my heart for an early love, but life presents us with a myriad of choices. Enjoy the choices.
I admit that I cannot understand all of this narcissism or self flagellation. How can one have time for others if they are so self absorbed?

Unknown said...

Kinda in the middle on this. Speaking with others about beliefs and thoughts I find to be very interesting and helps me consider other points of view. The questions Boomer cites as examples do seem too intimate for early discussions, but to have deep friendships, questions like these seem needed. So, maybe not early on with a new colleague, but hopefully with people who you think of as friends, and with home conversations about weighty matters might serve to deepen the friendship. And maybe that helps us away from living lives of quiet desperation.

I am my mother's daughter said...

I believe that if some bloke I worked with, but didn't know well, asked me how I fell in love with my husband, I would be like "what?" These intimate questions from left field sound more like a job interview than the basis of a relationship. Intimacies are shared once you get to know someone. Getting to know someone usually starts with inane questions like "where are you from?" You are looking for commonality, which can lead to friendship or romance. I truly pity this generation, they seem to want all of the benefits without any of the work, in their relationships, romance, work, etc., they seem superficial and very self absorbed!