modern ms manners: the art of small talk
MRS HIGGINS: But you mustn’t. I’m serious, Henry. You offend all my friends: they stop coming whenever they meet you.
HIGGINS: Nonsense! I know I have no small talk; but people don’t mind.
MRS HIGGINS: Oh! Don’t they? Small talk indeed! What about your large talk? Really, dear, you mustn’t stay.
- ‘Pygmalion’ Act III Sc 1. George Bernard Shaw
For those unfamiliar with the story of Pygmalion, it centres around Eliza Doolittle’s encounters with Professor Henry Higgins, a linguist and phonetician, who prides himself on being able to train and manipulate the human voice to ensure proper speech. The problem with Henry is that whilst he is concerned with how people speak, he himself has very little concern about what he is actually saying. This has the result of him often being a well spoken, yet offensive, idiot.
I find the conundrum of Henry’s behaviour contains a timeless message about the importance of being able to hold a decent conversation with others, irrespective of whether you particularly like them or not. Whilst we may not all be linguists or members of high society, we cannot escape the fact that at some point, we are going to be forced into a situation where we must speak to another human being and hold up a semblance of a conversation.
Growing up I was frightfully shy. I hated talking to strangers and like all good nerds in training, I found it much easier to enjoy the company of books than people. However, with encouragement I gradually began to appreciate the benefit of engaging in conversation with others, and started to practise my ‘small talk’. Nowadays I readily jump at the chance to meet and engage with new people, and love nothing better than a good old chin wag with someone I have just met.
That is, unless they suffer from some sort of over share affliction which has them rambling on about how their aunt must have been murdered for the straw hat she once owned, as Eliza Doolittle finds herself so eloquently recounting.
Cue last Thursday when I found myself confronted with a man’s divorce no more than five minutes after having met him.
Having recently moved house, I have been required to do all those extra little adult things that nobody prepares you for when you enter in to your twenties. Organising things like a bond, electricity, references and change of enrolment has meant that I have spent what feels like an eternity on the phone with bureaucrats and telemarketers listening to random bursts of Celine Dion, which is only interrupted by a computer telling me how important my call is to their company.
I finally was able to arrange for the internet to be connected. Enter random internet technician who I had arranged to meet at the apartment. We greet each other, but somewhere between ‘Hi. I am here to connect the internet,’ and me saying ‘Sure, I’ll let you upstairs,’ we somehow found ourselves at the conversational point of ‘Well my ex-wife crashed my car and left me with no money’. You know, just the usual tête-à-tête one normally has with a random stranger.
I quickly realised that this guy had no real intention of engaging in any conversation with me, rather he just wanted to rant about his ex-wife. Which, you know, is fine for family or friends or someone you have known for at least forty five minutes.
It is hard to dictate what constitutes appropriate conversation, given a lot of the social boundaries have changed since Pygmalion times. Topics such as politics and religion may even be broached if it is in the right setting and done in an open and considerate manner. I think an element of common sense has to be applied and each context taken into consideration. However, in an effort to ease the process, I have developed a short list of dos and don’ts:-
DO make an effort – the person you are talking to is probably just as shy as you are but could turn out to be a really interesting person.
DON’T succumb to the temptation of playing on your phone. You will only further isolate yourself.
DO try and find some common ground – Why is it that you are both here? How do you know the host/band/event etc.
DON’T be controversial just for the sake of it, unless you are around people you know well. Otherwise you run the risk of offending someone or making yourself look like a jerk.
DO ask questions – it is not a job interview, however simple things like ‘How are you?’ and ‘What do you do?’ are quite natural ice breakers
DON’T answer ‘How are you?’ with anything else except ‘Well thank you’ or ‘Not bad, how are you?’ This is not being insincere, but you must realise there is a difference between someone close to you genuinely asking after you, and someone just being friendly while you install their internet.