Is it safe to say small talk is getting harder? Is there anything left to discuss without dipping suddenly and dramatically into a deep dive of mutual horror? “Hello. How’s your day been? Heard the news?” No! Not the news! Good grief no. Anything but the news. How about… the weather? Yeesh. Didn’t think so. Sport! Good, clean, healthy sport… with its… cheats… and its… misogyny… and its… NEVER MIND SHOOSH LET’S JUST SIT HERE IN SILENCE.
Small talk is, essentially, a mutual attempt to unite strangers in a suspended moment of casual regard while time passes. To avoid content that is important, or meaningful, or threatening, or worrying. We don’t want to expend unnecessary emotional energy discussing the fall of western capitalism with a person who is selling us groceries and who is labelled SAMANTHA if we can at all avoid it. For Samantha’s sake, and for ours.
Thus we avoid speaking to each other properly lest we say anything. Most of the time that’s because it’s ten minutes until your car park expires and Samantha is about to go on break.
Here’s the thing, though. We’re communicating all the time. We’re actually very good at it. There are little moments of connection all around us. So here’s to them. Forget the main action. Ignore the plot and the dialogue. Look in the background at all the other things going on. This is a Public Service Announcement.
Someone ahead of you on the escalator stepping to the left because they hear you coming: communication.
A cat head-butting you at a bus stop: communication.
Locking eyes with a person at a train station while you’re on a train that has just started moving and the pair of you have nothing to lose so you just look, without self-consciousness, for three large seconds: connection.
That thing where you’re crossing the road and the pedestrian light starts to flash red and there’s a car waiting to turn and you perform for them a hurried walk that actually isn’t much faster than your real walk: communication.
I was in an office recently and a person trotted over to her manager’s office. Needed quick approval for something. Knocked on the door while reading over something complex to make sure she had it all in order. Manager was on the phone, which wasn’t obvious from outside the door, so she turned, the manager, in her swivel chair. Really gave it a hefty spin so that she faced her visitor at the door while simultaneously talking on the phone. She held her finger up - one minute! - while smiling, and the spin kept going so that the colleague with the question, now leaning in the doorframe, was smiling at the jovial movement of her manager, spinning, still, in jaunty circles with her finger aloft, dealing most seriously with this person on the phone who had no idea she was rotating at speed. A lot is said about “workplace culture” but if there could be more spinny-chair-type managers that would be nice. Spinny boss and her door-leaning colleague then had a brief, friendly, informative chat, and each went back to work, an in-joke shouted over a shoulder on the way out. The spin in the chair was the most important element of communication, though, of that there is no doubt.
Reaching over and taking food from someone else’s plate: incredible act of intimacy.
The way humans communicate with each other using coded visual symbolism, deploying aesthetics to convey stories, feelings and desires. Yes there’s film and art, but walk past your favourite bookshop. Look at the window display. The way the books are fanned. The way the colours work. The little stationery items in the glass jars near the counter. Someone in the bookshop is selling you an idea; the idea of what you might become if you open the door and then the front cover of a book. Google “the art of window displays”. And sure, this is capitalism writ large. It’s actually called, awfully, “visual merchandising”, but the instinct is no different from the human desire to design a lovely garden out the front of a home with a carefully swept path and a cute little letterbox. It’s communicating, visually, an idea. And the idea is: you’re welcome here. Come in. You’ll love it.
Small talk might be getting harder but remember: no talk is also good. The unspoken stuff. The spinny chairs and the food theft and a strange cat and a house. This has been a Public Service Announcement.
This column originally appeared in The Big Issue, which you should buy whenever you can.