What's the sitch with small talk?
Small talk, jabber, shooting the breeze, chitchat, exchanging pleasantries… To engage in communication without the intention to communicate anything substantive. It allows participants to give and receive attention, acknowledge each other’s presence, and feel comfortable standing in the same area. We all do it, and it plays an important role in maintaining social bonds.
That said, in my experience, there aren’t good boundaries in place to end small talk that has run its course. The person initiating the small talk is almost always in the right, by default, and to forcibly disengage before adequate pleasantries are exchanged is considered rude behavior.
Perhaps you haven’t ever felt this way. In that case, you are probably someone who thoroughly enjoys and seeks out small talk. And, I would hazard to guess, that someone who you have chatted with has felt put upon by your forced, empty conversation (unless you are just a master shit-shooter).
I’m someone who likes mindless gab, and understand it can be some of the most enjoyable conversation around. But, like in all behaviors, moderation is important. I’d like to propose a few general rules that we can all try to follow moving forward, with regards to beginning and ending frivolous dialogue. If these guidelines were agreed upon and disseminated, we could enter an unprecedented era sprinkled with comfortable small talk.
1. No jabbering before 9 AM. This is a loose rule, and depends on the setting. But a chosen time was needed, and 9 AM seems reasonable. Give people a chance to become fully alert and embrace the beginning of a new day. We all need different amounts of time to mentally prepare to start relating to the other humans after a peaceful night alone, in our dreams. 9 AM is a fair compromise. If it’s a little earlier or later for you, or in your workplace, that’s fine, and you can adjust this rule as needed.
2. When I got shit to do, and I’m doing it. This is a more firm rule, and hinges on both parts of the rule. I both have shit to do, AND I’m doing it. Aimless chatter is a great way to take a break from the tasks at hand. But, when things are being accomplished by one party, and a second party diverts attention away from the task and toward themselves, only with the aim of vapid correspondence, that’s not cool. Some of us have a harder time refocusing attention, and a poorly timed chat can derail what otherwise would have been a productive period.
3. When the small talk is all about only one of the people. With this rule, it is important to emphasize that this is trivial small talk, specifically. Having a conversation about one person’s real issues or situations is necessary and important. I’m not saying all conversations have to be equally about both people. But casual conversation should be balanced, with the discourse freely touching on how both participants are doing, or talking about events, places, people or things that have nothing to do with either conversator’s personal affairs. When one small talker enters with an agenda that is focused on themselves, the other often feels alienated, bored, or most often, annoyed. Another caveat of this rule is that, small talk can sometimes be all about a person who is NOT engaged in the current confabulation (and is then commonly known as “talking shit.”)
This rule is similar to the next rule, but different in important enough ways as to necessitate both rules.
4. When there is a definite imbalance in desire to small talk between parties. This rule can apply in a variety of situations. It can be as simple as, one doesn’t feel like chatting, because of any of the reasons mentioned already, or because they are just not in the mood. Perhaps a loved one has died recently. An imbalance can also occur when the two are at obviously different ranks in a hierarchy, at different levels in a stratified power dynamic. When a simple plebeian wants to chitchat with his or her boss, and it isn’t an appropriate time. Or when a fan wants face time to jabber with their favorite celebrity, but the one with fame isn’t comfortable. As stated earlier, this rule often overlaps with rule #3, in that one of the parties often has an agenda when there is a power discrepancy, and therefore enters into a supposed “casual,” conversation with dishonest motives.
5. When you’ve chatted with the other person plenty, and don’t have an established, easy-flowing chitchat-relationship. Obligatory pleasantries have been exchanged, both people have acknowledged each other’s presence, a quiet peace has settled… and yet one won’t disengage. This is a commonly broken rule, and a difficult one to accept for some. Two people don’t HAVE to be talking constantly in order to sit in the same room together, or to pass through the same hallways, or to use the same coffeemaker. It’s not required. And when a comfortable truce can’t be reached, tension and discord can build, even where there was previously a pleasant dialogue space. It’s hard to explain this rule much further than that; it’s more of a feeling. And again, this doesn’t apply when the two people have a history of effortless, enjoyable gab (although the existence of this history, or its effortlessness, is not always agreed upon). Often, none of the other rules have been broken, making these especially tricky situations to navigate.
For example, after lunch, on a slow day, two coworkers have just chatted about their weekend plans. They sit within earshot of one another, and could continue to talk as long as one keeps saying words loudly enough. But again, they are not friends, or at minimum, one of the two does not see the other as their friend. How do these two disengage? I posit that, if conversation continues aimlessly past a certain comfort point, one could simply say, “Rule #5 brah,” and the other would get the message, in an acceptable way.
I’m not trying to stifle fun banter between those with an established record, and I’m certainly not trying to put a damper on making new friends. I just want to institute a few ground rules, so that ending small talk can be accomplished in a less awkward manner.
Also, I swear, our team of writers here at whatsthesitch.com are really not huge assholes. This sitch was written because, ahhh, a friend of the writing staff, yeah that’s it, a friend of ours sometimes gets annoyed by misplaced, prolonged small talk.