June 13, 2006

Small talk.

We were just talking about small talk. Some people hate small talk, but I think most people like it if it's on subjects that inspire them to lighten up and open up, which is the point of small talk, isn't it? So here's my question -- a visualization exercise, really. Imagine that you're going to be in a situation where there will be a lot of small talk. Picture yourself really enjoying the small talk. What 5 subjects came up in the conversation?


Dave said...

Baseball, football (not American, but real football--i.e., soccer), economics, libertarianism, New York City real estate.

chuck b. said...

San Francisco real estate, destinations for daytripping (or recent vacations), cooking, intriguing liquor-based beverages, recently read bestseller nonfiction.

amba said...

Do economics and libertarianism count as small talk? Do they inspire you to "lighten up and open up"? Do most of us mix up small and big talk that way, not distinguishing (any more than this blog does) between the large and small things that engross us? In answering this question, are we supposed to weed out the big, heavy topics that we actually enjoy discussing? Or can you make small talk about big subjects?

Dave said...

Small talk need not be about superficial things.

See baseball and soccer and NYC real estate. Nothing superficial about any of that.

Kate said...

That's a really tough question. Small talk... wouldn't that include how the kids are doing, who's having a baby, that kind of thing?

Matthew said...

Sadly, NYC real estate comes up far too often as "small talk" by people who have no idea what they're talking about. I do agree though, if discussed by those who have a clue, it is a great topic.

Internet Ronin said...

Cooking/food/good places to eat, mutual friends/family, travel plans/ideas, shared memories, & music sprang to mind.

Ann Althouse said...

Amba: "Do most of us mix up small and big talk that way, not distinguishing (any more than this blog does) between the large and small things that engross us?"

As I started reading this question, before I got to the parathetical, I got all geared up to write a comment about how this is my approach to blogging. I like being able to slip in and out of seriousness, to take something light and suddenly go profound -- or the reverse. It's the main thing that people who don't get my blog don't get.

So definitely don't week out heavy topics that you'd like to make small talk about. I could totally see going with: death, disfiguration, poverty, cancer, and execution devices. Just picturing a fun night of banter!

Ann Althouse said...

... I mean weed out.

Palladian said...

Perfume, furniture design, baroque music, cheese, cars.

(verification letters: thxzs = Thanks, Ziggy Stardust.)

Kate said...

Oh, then for "small talk" it would definitely be politics, where I want to travel in the world, next year, my crazy granddaughter, touching on religion. Hmmm... need one more. How about how computers have changed peoples lives over the past 20 years... after algore invented the internet. :)

West Coast Independent said...

Usually I try pick safe inoffensive subjects like what recent movies people have seen. Good restaurants, places people have been, how terrible (unless they are winning), my hometown teams, the Padres, and Chargers are. And, oh yeah, let's not week out New York City real estate.

Palladian said...

Oh, I get it. Ok, I'll add 5 more that I actually have had small talk about, in addition to the 5 I posted above:

cemeteries (with a special emphasis on both tombstone design and inappropriate cemetery behavior), Danish muslims (a hilarious conversation over Korean food with a Dane and 2 Norwegians), mummification (I was explaining Egyptian mummification and the various substances used, which turned into a conversation about cooking with spices), Natural Killer Cells, oral sex (you have no idea how many fine, upstanding women I (a gay man) have discussed this with in legitimate, genteel surroundings (and I didn't even initiate the subject).

(verification letters: yvwxxx = Yarra Valley Water, for ADULTS ONLY)

chuck b. said...

Palladian said: "you have no idea how many fine, upstanding women I (a gay man) have discussed this with in legitimate, genteel surroundings (and I didn't even initiate the subject)."

Actually, I do. But I (also a gay man) don't find it a happy subject for small talk. I wanna say, "Ladies, please."

Verification word: kbeevr. 'kay, let's talk about beavers.

Dave said...

So how do I emulate a gay man to get women to talk to me about oral sex?

Ann Althouse said...

Chuck: LOL (about the WV). And I think Dan Savage is a big part of it. His column is all about the idea that a gay man is the one to give women advice about what men want.

And my WV is ohbbigmj. Awesomely large... what?

Johnny Nucleo said...

Me. Trivia I know. Movies I like. Stuff I like. Me.

But really, that's big talk. Does anybody like small talk? It's small. It's pretty much the weather, sports, work sucks, look at pictures of my family. It's what people talk about because they feel weird not talking.

The stuff Ann mentioned makes people uncomfortable because most people stop with the thinking after thirty or when they have kids. If someone doesn't know you and you start to talk about that stuff, they get freaked out. Unless they are cool. But if they are cool, they probably don't want to talk to you anyway. If you and some cool person do start talking about that stuff, the talk is no longer small. It has become philosophizing.

Marghlar said...

Good Food (which includes alcoholic beverages, which I consider a food group)

Good Art (films/books/visual art/etc)

Bad Art (Honestly, what's more fun than mocking crap -- and taking guilty pleasure from it)

Law (what can I say, I'm a legal nerd. I very often find that discussing the law is good chit-chat with other legal-types)

Chicago Real Estate

Although we were only given five, I must state one factor that is categorically excluded, that makes my eyes glaze over when brought up, and makes me start counting the seconds until I can do something else:

Sports. I'd grant a few exceptions here (during the olympics, it can be fun to discuss bizarre events, and I can always chat about sailing), but if it involves moving inflated objects around in some arbitrary yet rule-based fashion, I have almost zero interest.

dave said...

the French New Wave, May 1968, the end of copyright law in the internet age, the possibility of progress, surviving the collapse of human society

Craig Ranapia said...

I tend to agree with W.H. Auden, who one said he loved listening to other people "talk shop" as long as they weren't writers. I don't know a damn thing about being a plumber or an accountant or (dare I say it) a law lecturer, so I'm entertained unless you're a toxic waste bore no matter what the subject is. But it's funny how people do "open up" - and often go off on the most intriguing tangents - when you express an interest in their lives.

sonicfrog said...

Music - bass players unite!

Cars - Subarus and the death of Detroit.

Movies - especially bad reviews.

Cartoons - a great reflection of society.

... and last but not least:
Politics - especially Bad Politics - when things go bad for one party or another, or some politician does something foolish or stupid, which can generate never ending banter.

nina said...

Isn't small talk by definition insignificant? And not engaging? Banter is something altogether different: sharp, witty, quick. Banter may become small if it fizzles and small may become profound if someone (one hopes both sides) becomes fascinated or otherwise engaged. The subjects are irrelevant, right? Any can fit into either mode.

sonicfrog said...

PS. Ever wonder why there are so many gay men / lebians that read / participate on the splendid Althouse Blog (my-gay-self included)???

How is that for a good small talk subject?

chuck b. said...

Nina, you're splitting sunbleached hairs.

XWL said...

I don't think the subjects so much as the teller have the greatest effect as whether or not a 'small talk' session ends up being barely endurable or a delight. But with that said, if I were to picture a social engagement where a conversation of no great substance ended up being rathe enjoyable here are five areas of concentration that come to mind (keeping in mind that a requirement for enjoyable small talk is that there is space for ebb/flow call/response between each party):

a)Favorite vices

b)Embarrassing tales of a third party known in common but not in ear shot (aka gossip)

c)Well told workplace anecdotes (so often these meander and are badly told, so when this is done well, it's a pleasure)

d)Latest book/blog/film/TV show obsessing the person I'm conversing with (so long as they are good at articulating the why behind their latest passion)

e)Tales from "Back in the Day" (bloody nostalgia, it's addictive)

LoafingOaf said...

1. Movies
2. Baseball, especially the plight of the Cleveland Indians
3. Morrissey, the pop singer
4. Dogs
5. Who/what sucks in pop culture
6. Golf
7. Reality TV programs (what can I say, they make fun small talk fodder with fellow viewers...and I realize this impeaches me on the subject of what sucks in pop culture.)

Alan Kellogg said...

At this point in time?

Tetrapod evolution, Dungeons and Dragons, world building, who died recently in the science fiction world, and getting beyond the campaign in Iraq to the real war on tyranny.

Though to paraphrase a movie line I read in a Gerard Vanderleun posting over at American Digest, there is never nothing to talk about.

Word Verification: mngqu

Quick, Mngqu, sound the alarm! The Bahtuchi are attacking! Mngqu, you know damn well better tha...

Jacques Cuze said...

1. Stolen elections and the loss of civil rights in America
2. How America went from wearing the white hat to wearing the black hat and how sad that makes me and fearful for my daughters
3. The Illegal War in Iraq and all of the misery and death caused in our names by a few criminals that took power in a Supreme Court driven coup
4. How this administration is anti-science
5. My ability to provide G-Spot, full body orgasms with a single touch

Palladian said...

"Right. Well, I have to - I have to go now, quxxo, because I, I'm due back on the planet Earth."

Palladian said...

Great, now in addition to his own overpowering stench, quxxo's attracting porn spammer comments.

phillywalker said...

XWL's list works for me.

But if I had to come up with some others, I'd ask for witty, engaging people to:

1. Discuss how they got where they are today (ie, chose or stumbled into a career)

2. Speculate about what other careers they might have had (the dream career)

3. Recount how they met their significant other (or didn't)

4. Gossip (good gossip)

5. Wallow in childhood nostalgia

Ann Althouse said...

The XWL/Phillywalker lists are at a very high level of generality, not really topics, but forms of small talk: anecdotes, gossip, nostalgia...

That contrasts to the superspecific topics -- notably, Morrissey.

It would be interesting to go into the situation with a superspecific topic and the goal of bringing the conversation around to it. Whatever else happens, I'm going to find a way to work Morrissey into the conversation.

Hey, it wouldn't be that hard. Did anyone ever tell you, you look like Morrissey. And you're off and running on the Morrissey thread.

Ann Althouse said...

Nina: Well, I'm thinking of a topic: banter and small talk, is there a difference?

I'd say banter is a style of small talk. The emphasis is on hitting a subject back and forth. You're reading small talk more pejoratively than it's commonly used these days, I think.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

1. Travel plans to San Jose.
2. Super-fantastic purple shoes.
3. How you got your commenters to help you overcome small talk blockage.
4. Dale Carnegie
5. Your son's law review article.

Specific enough?

Jim H said...

Quxxo's list highlights why politics is not a good topic for small talk in a social setting. Sure, it brings people into the conversation, but how often are they talking to each other as opposed to at each other? (Not even counting those who can turn any topic into a monologue about what an dangerous idiot George Bush is.)

Also, some people will form a negative opinion about others based exclusively on basic ideological differences. Isn't it more pleasant to trick them into liking you first?

Ann Althouse said...

Ruth Anne, Jim: You're looking at a different question (Ruth on the "blockage" point), which is some good ideas going into a situation to maximize the chances that the small talk will go well. My visualization asks you to think up your ideal small talk. You're already assured that things went well and you had a good time. Now, what did you talk about? I invite you to fantasize about what you wish the small talk would be about. In that visualization, politics is a good answer for someone. However, it's a terrible choice for going into an unknown conversation if your goal is for things to go well.

Goesh said...

pic-nics, pets, babies, movies and sports

MadisonMan said...

As a rule, I hate shmoozing and small talk. My preferred mode at parties is watching, or engaging in catty talk with neighbors. However, if I had to choose, as Ann requested:

(1) Real estate, as in who is selling their house and why are they asking that outrageous price?
(2) Community Shares Agriculture
(3) The variety of weather in Wisconsin
(4) Books that have recently been read
(5) What ancestors did what and where during the Civil War
(6) Bonus! Nutty things that students have done in my classes

Pogo said...

With a recent high school graduation and the required attendance at many parties in honor of the graduate, these subjects were common:

1. high school stories (comparing your own experience to what it's like now)
2. the food (wonderful, who's cooking it, ack! chicken sandwiches!)
3. where is the grad going to college? what are they planning to study?
4. oops - someone said something political - quick! change the subject! - So whose the gardener here? I love the plants out front!
5. how many of these have you been to already?

Pogo said...


Ideal small talk?
1. crazy neighbor stories
2. most embarrassing moments
3. favorite books
4. favorite movies
5. worries about your kids (achieved only after striking up some points of commonality over an hour or so, inviting an intimate moment, however brief)

Al Maviva said...

1. The excellent quality of the host's choice in decor, food, booze, or if nothing else, friends.

2. Somebody's recent vacation, job change, kid's school accomplishments.

3. Pets

4. Shop talk other than involving my own profession.

5. The idiot who just stomped out after I called him an ill-mannered needledick for trying to inject his shrill, mouth-foaming political views into what was an otherwise pleasant conversation.

knoxgirl said...

books; celebrity gossip; movies; cooking/gardening/other domestic arts; and, of course, american idol if in season.

It sure helps if it's something you can laugh at!

Joseph Hovsep said...

I am a terrible, awkward small talker, partly because if I'm going to engage someone, I would just assume talk about highly personal, emotional, philosophical and controversial topics, but I know that most people are put off by the idea of talking about those things in casual conversation. So, my first choice of conversation, even brief, and even with complete strangers, would be off-limits topics like politics or religion, but I've found I also really enjoy:

--how and why you got to be doing what you are doing today (I've had some really interesting life experiences, but I still tend to stick within certain safe zones and I'm especially interested in people who have taken nontraditional routes, changed careers, or do things that are really different than I've done)

--travel (especially international, but also local places I might not have known about or been motivated to check out)


Jennifer said...

Kids, other duty stations/states/countries and what they're like, places/things I want to see in our new state, movies.

With the girls - makeup, American Idol, sex.

With the guys - war stories. I, of course, have nothing to add, but they can be fascinating.

Henry said...

Red Sox
Baseball statistics
Home remodeling
Your crazy relations

Outside of my immediate family I avoid talking politics and religion at all costs. Too many tripwires.

Since baseball is a non-starter in some circles (and no fun to talk about except with other fans), kids is my general fallback.

And I always enjoy hearing about other people's crazy relations.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

O.K. My perfect small talk:
1. Me.
2. My husband.
3. My son.
4. My daughter.
5. My other daughter.

The problem, however, is that my perfect idea of topics is everyone else's idea of boredom. So, to be a perfect small talker, we gotta' talk about you, you, you, you and you.

Bruce Hayden said...

Probably why I enjoy Alhouse so much - this is such a diverse list. Sure, some of the usual sports for the guys, family for the gals, etc. (sorry about the stereotypes).

But if you were to walk into an average gathering in this country, would you really expect to hear much of this stuff? I sure wouldn't. But I think I would personally enjoy talking to probably about 2/3 of those here, given their subjects of small talk - though they mostly would not be my preferred choices.

My experience is that politics (and because of that economics and world affairs) and religion are subjects that you should ease into. For example, if not physical blows, I suspect that Jacques Cuze and I would soon be in a shouting match with his list.

I usually play things by ear, and try to talk about what the other person is more interested in, but absent that, my list would probably be:
- kids - esp. teenagers through young adults, and preferably your own or close thereof.
- law (esp. IP, but that is rare)
- computers / technology
- skiing
- Rocky Mtn. west in general, CO in particular.
- family, background, etc.

Like most places in this country, you can break the ice with guys at least by talking about the local sports teams. Here though in CO, it only works if either the team is doing very well, or it is the Broncos. And in Phoenix, it seems like everyone is from somewhere else, so you are as likely to have a Packers fan as a Cardinals fan.

Bruce Hayden said...

I find the point about gay men and straight women talking about sex interesting, but not surprising.

I first ran into this a couple decades ago in SF, where a friend had a restaraunt. Her wait staff was straight women and gay men. And the conversations were interesting in this regard. There seems to be something in that dynamic that brings out talking about sex, and it seems to be more on the women's part.

It was interesting to me because, as a straight guy, these women would not introduce these subjects around me, but it was ok if I joined in after the conversations on sex had already started.

My theory is that it is the safety factor. If a straight woman is willing to make small talk about sex with a straight guy, then he is likely to read that as a green light.

Ann Althouse said...

Ruth Anne: Your list reminds me of something I was saying yesterday, about a good default topic for people who don't like to make small talk: the other person is usually happy to get the chance to talk about herself or himself. Just let them know it's fine with you.

Often the other person asks you a lot of questions about yourself, which you might feel burdened having to answer, but I think the secret message is that they are looking for permission to talk about themself and they just don't want it to look too obvious.

Christy said...

Isn't small talk just a way to figure out if we want to engage in big talk with the person? It is never about the actual talk is it?

"I see friends shaking hands/saying how do you do/ they're really saying I love you"

Movies, Pets, Books, Skiing, and the Orioles work for me.

If you demand witty banter from someone you just met, you may be a boor. Just saying.

I knew a woman once who would talk about blow jobs around a dinner table full of straight men. The man she'd invited to the dinner one particular night must have thought he was the luckiest guy in the world. As soon as dinner was over... As soon as she stops talking about this.... As soon as she stops talking about that.... As soon as she stops talking about the other thing. She told me latter that they stayed up til 6 a.m. talking, just talking, no sex. Don't think any of us ever saw that poor guy again.

sonicfrog said...

Bruce reminded me of another tangent I will find myself on and I have to add it to my list:

Computers - and the comparison / superiority of Linux or Apple over Windows. I'll go on and on about that one. It's no wonder I'm no good at parties.

Dave said...

No topic bores me as much as "the superiority of Linux or Apple over Windows."

Yes, we all know they're vastly superior, but really, it ain't that hard to keep your Wintel computer free of viruses and spyware. Trust me. I've been doing it for well over tne years now.

Bruce Hayden said...


I feel no better about baseball. Watching a game is like watching grass grow. And how can I get excited for a sport where the Yankees spend twice what Atlanta does, and they in turn spend twice what some other teams spend for players? (give me salary caps any day)

But many of my friends are fanatics - the ones here ultimately switched from their home teams (usually the Cubs) when we got the Rockies.

So, my usual response to whether I like the Rockies is that, yes I do, but I like the Canadian Rockies even better than our Colorado Rockies, and if you really want to see mountains, you should go to Alaska. I segue into the Colorado versus Canadian Rockies even faster if someone asks about the team by their full name.

Maybe not nice, but what would I talk about concerning baseball?

Pogo said...

Of course, the topic is not the point of small talk. It's a ritual, with subtle rules, not unlike how primates groom each other.

There's no real deep meanig to it, except one might marvel how wonderfully most people seem to simply know what's required. Some are unable or unwilling to play along, but violations are quickly dealt with.

Standing above the scene looking down, it seems a bit like a Japanese Noh play. Quite lovely if you think about it.

Noumenon said...

Galactic Civilizations (or some other computer game we both play)

politics -- actually I just like to dance around the topic of politics and insidiously put left-wing talking points in people's brains. Like the idea there's no such thing as crack babies and it's just an example of how we believe the worst about poor people.

Your list reminds me of something I was saying yesterday, about a good default topic for people who don't like to make small talk: the other person is usually happy to get the chance to talk about herself or himself. Just let them know it's fine with you.

I personally hate to talk about myself because I've been living with myself for 25 years and I've talked about it all already. All my stories about myself are like one sentence long.

reader_iam said...

Music; wicked quotes; when '70s-inspired fashion will finally go away; oddball news stories (such as the one the other day about some wacko woman beating a dog breeder with a dead puppy); what other people see in the objects of their affection.

For starters.

Alan Kellogg said...

Having a topic to talk about is all well and good, but what about...

Asking questions?

Making someone's favorite topic boring as hell is a talent. So is making a topic someone has no interest in fascinating. The first step being, letting him know you find the subject interesting. The second being, showing him how it is interesting.

"Why we don't have six legged mammals? That's simple, the trait disappeared 'bout 100 million years before our ancestors started colonizing the land. Anf extra limbs in mammals just don't work that good."

Marghlar said...

Like the idea there's no such thing as crack babies and it's just an example of how we believe the worst about poor people.

From experience, it is true that crack babies don't get as messed up as heroin babies, or especially fetal alcohol kids. (Ladies -- if you have to abuse a substance during pregancy, probably better to smoke some crack than to drink heavily!) But the crack kids were by no means a pretty picture.

See? Small talk.

Finn Kristiansen said...

Oh man, I am too late to this conversation, but it's lists, so I have to add my small talk:

Real estate (Hey my friend got fired, just got a real estate license. Is it too late now? What markets are still lively? Will downtown Phoenix prices hold since ASU is moving various colleges there, like schools of nursing, public policy and journalism?)

Investing(Will the future money to be made be in China and the Asian region over the next 20 years? Isn't this price volatility great for option strategies?).

Movies(Doesn't that new Superman look cheesy in the commercials? And, this girl at work I wanted to see Xmen with saw it with someone else, leaving me to see The Breakup with her, which was not half as bad as the critics made out. But who did she see Xmen with? I am dying to know.)

Iraq (How come people keep saying there is no exit strategy when the trigger for exit--a relatively trained Iraq military/police force--is obvious).

Music (Hey, some guy on this lawyer blog I read said he liked Morrissey--Yea he is awesome. I just bought his Ringleader of the Tormentors, but the same girl who went to Xmen with someone else told me that her ex-boyfriend likes Morrissey too, and that's not a good thing).

Noumenon said...

Marghlar -- what was your experience with crack babies like? Do you work in health care or were you like an X-treme babysitter?

Marghlar said...

Noumenon: I worked briefly in a child welfare law practice, assisting attorneys who were appointed counsel to kids who were abused or neglected by their parents. A fair few of our clients had been born addicted to drugs. Also, my downstairs neighbor is a fostermom with an exposed child.

Freeman Hunt said...

My top five:

(1) Christian theology.

(2) Libertarianism.

(3) Pregnancy. I just listen. I'm pregnant for the first time, so I don't have much to say. Luckily, people who have been pregnant usually leap at the chance to talk about it.

(4) Asian (especially Hong Kong and Korean) movies.

(5) What education should be.

LoafingOaf said...

Ann Althouse: That contrasts to the superspecific topics -- notably, Morrissey.

It would be interesting to go into the situation with a superspecific topic and the goal of bringing the conversation around to it. Whatever else happens, I'm going to find a way to work Morrissey into the conversation.

Hey, it wouldn't be that hard. Did anyone ever tell you, you look like Morrissey. And you're off and running on the Morrissey thread.

Darnit! I managed to work Morrissey into the small talk in this thread, but I didn't make it back here till after the thread went stale. :(

Yeah, it's easy to work him in, but I was told I do it too much. :)

LoafingOaf said...

freeman hunt: I'm pregnant for the first time

Hey, Morrissey has a song titled "Pregant for the Last Time"!

"Phlegm lapels for the last time/corn beef legs for the last time/oh, we’re so glad/that you’ve finally decided.... Tiny striped socks for the last time...pokes and prods for the last time...bad advice for the last time....."

Well, not one of his better songs.