Small talk delights and confounds us, and it is worth asking why. In this short humorous piece I will confine myself to American small talk, as there appear to be different variations on this tune, as Mark Twain might also have pointed out if he had written more about American English and less about the German language.
On the one hand, it can feel overly factual and too easy, (are they making fun of me?) on the other hand, it is full of ambiguity and hidden meaning. But do you KNOW what that meaning is? It is also a way of getting to know you quickly, whatever the circumstances, sharing information, getting the real information fast or just having some fun in a bored moment.
Hence I share with you a “Small Talk Vignette” from one of my trips in the US. Although I am American, I have felt like a foreigner in the US at various times, and this was one of them:
My sister and I decided to take a trip to one of my favorite parts of the world: Zion National Park near St. George, Utah. So we packed our bags and one of her children, Lucas, and made our way West. In Denver we had a layover before flying on to Las Vegas (where we would rent a car and head into the desert) and as in any airport, we had a limited amount of options as to how to spend our time. For me my choices were more sophisticated. Would it be the bookstore, finding a seat with a view of the runway to journal or get a coffee? In front of me stretched the ubiquitous Starbucks line and after very little thought, I stepped into it.
I should say that at this point in my life I was quite used to the “German” way of seeing things, meaning I was living in Berlin, fluent in German and only visiting the US to see family and sights. This certainly would’ve made this experience more heightened than for the normal American. But this story is as true as it could be.
Being in this particular comfort zone, as I say, when I stepped into the line, I did what we did at that time in the U-Bahn of Berlin and all over the city. I pulled out my book and began to read to while away the time and do something to entertain myself while being productive. (I did not have a smartphone yet!) There was one subway line in Berlin I dubbed “the library line” because the atmosphere of the train was so close to that of a study hall.
In this case, I was reading one of the books recommended by my women’s group in Berlin, Elizabeth Gilbert’s splendid Eat, Pray, Love. Just as I was getting settled into Liz’s problems with her husband, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “what the..?”, I thought, as I know literally no one in Denver and really at this point the US was not so much my first home anymore. “Who could that be and what could they want from me?” Well, I did not have to wait for long to find out, although the answer did not come in a structured way I could comprehend easily. Here was my answer:
“Watcha reading?” said a friendly face when I turned around to confront the invading shoulder tapper.
With a blank and surprised expression, I showed her my book cover. “Eat, Pray, Love”, I said weakly.
And then with a pounce and a cackle of delight:
“Isn’t that a great book? Did you see the movie? Wasn’t Julia Roberts wonderful? So silly all that talk about her being too old for the role! And isn’t Rome beautiful? I mean, simply stunning, right?”, at this point I was nodding and making small talk noises that are inbred in me as an American. “Yes”, “right”, “Oh, really”? coming out of my mouth at regular intervals in between nods and light smiles. (I don’t even know I do this!)
“Do you write? (me: yes). Do you know Rome? (me: no). I am absolutely determined to go there one day for my own pilgrimage like hers. (me: nods understandingly). Although, to be honest” (she cocked her head), “we’re having a few (her vocal fry coming on strong) financial problems right now, so we can’t go there right now (with vocal emphasis as her body tenses with dramatic vigor and her eyes narrow to look into mine. I look back, I know what she means at least in the here and now).
“But it is on my list, I will get there!” (me: yes, halleluiah!) And with a whoosh of air, energy and karma, “There’s nothing in life worth doing that doesn’t have its own struggle, you know! You only live once, time to get out there and make it happen!” (me: exhausted).
At this, we both arrive at the coffee counter. I dazedly order my coffee and she orders hers. I pay for my coffee and she pays for hers. After we received our coffees came the (for my part) uncomfortable part of saying goodbye. How would it end? Would it be a demur goodbye with eyelids lowered, a denial of intimacies shared? Would it be a hearty farewell? The parting of one pioneer from another as we head into frontiers unknown?
In the end, the finale came as a surprise as well, as it does with all professional small talkers, those professional connectors of people, information sharers and entertainers rolled into one. She simply turned to me, quite professionally, leaned into me conspiratorially and said, “now you see, wasn’t that much more fun than reading your book?” and with a wide and friendly smile as big as the western blue sky, she disappeared into the throng bearing a caffe latte. Me? Yes, as a matter of fact.
At this point, you may be shaking your head, reliving your own small talk encounters in airports throughout the world or wondering how you can make this happen for yourself. My advice to you, dear friend, is to find an American! I have worked with hundreds of people from all different nations and backgrounds, and the vast majority tell me that this happens to them specifically with Americans. Put yourself in the experimenter role and try it for yourself!
And here is a handy graphic I’ve created to help you find your way:
Want to talk more? Get in touch: [email protected].
If you like the graphic and would like a copy of your own, email me!
Jacquelyn Reeves is a USA culture expert who conducted more than 40 training days in 2018 focusing partially or primarily on the culture of the USA. She developed the Small talk model in order to better display the roll that small talk plays in the US society as a motor of mobility. Often overlooked, it is the key component that connects and networks people in the US.