Sunday, September 14, 2014

small talk

Inspired by the discovery of a book titled "Le grand art de la petite conversation" (English edition: "The Fine Art of Small Talk") at a FNAC store in Paris last week, I thought that it would be neat to address the topic of small talk.  The book was written by Debra Fine, a communication expert, and I am still reading it.

In order for the loner in me to have the social skills necessary for a fulfilling life, it would make sense that I strove to get better in small talk.  Fittingly, I devoted an entire operation to the subject.

Operation Small Talk would resemble what follows Operation Bonjour when it comes to having an interaction with a stranger.  Whereas the latter requires merely saying "Bonjour" to an unfamiliar person who just happens to be at the right place and the right time, the former is all about having a light conversation that starts off with something other than "Bonjour".  In essence, Operation Small Talk gets directly to the heart of the matter, bypassing the rule of beginning with a standard greeting.

The operation consists of creating 10 small talk moments in the course of a week.  For someone who was naturally sociable, which currently does not apply to me, this would be a trivial task that could even be completed in one day.  What constitutes a small talk moment is a verbal exchange that I initiate with a stranger and that does not begin by "Bonjour", "Excusez-moi" or something similar.  People at work in places like shops and restaurants do not count as strangers, since they are generally expected to cater to people.  As far the exchange itself, I started off simple saying something to the unfamiliar person and hearing him respond once.  If he does not respond, then there is no small talk moment.  In general, I do not retry with some other sentence; instead, I accept the rejection and move on.  Once I complete the operation 10 times over 10 separate weeks (meaning 100 small talk moments), I take things to the next level for example, saying something to the person and hearing them respond on two separate occasions.  After that, I keep setting up more difficult levels to reach, until each exchange ends up being a substantial conversation.  At that point, one could claim to be naturally sociable and the operation would be no longer necessary.

Any moment of small talk created in the hopes of connecting with someone does not require deep topics of conversation.  In addition, there is more than the weather.  There are your surroundings, which are usually rich with all sorts of information, be it people, animals, objects, behaviors, events, etc..  There is also your mind, which is busy processing this information in multiple ways, which in turn produces even more information.  Imagine that this new information that you just produced was shared instantaneously with someone within your physical reach.  That would potentially be a small talk moment.

In order to increase my chances of creating these moments, I do my best to remain aware when I am surrounded by people.  Even though I like exploring the contents of my mind, I figure that sharing with someone a thought that I just had would also allow me to discover things.  It could be some practical information that I was not expecting to receive on a subject that I was familiar with or an opinion on a topic that I knew little about.  In addition, the discovery could lie somewhere beyond the person's actual reply.  I could find out that the person actually had a friendly demeanor whereas I had initially assumed otherwise or I could recognize that despite our obvious differences, we were both essentially seeking similar things.

As if Debra Fine's book does not say enough about the value of it, I would argue that small talk helps people (including the person initiates it) to open up and thereby encourages trust.  Interestingly enough, it seems that if we had more trust in ourselves and in others, we would be able to open up even more.  I may be a loner, but I want to be open too.

I conclude with two examples of small talk moments that come to mind and that both happened recently.

One evening two weeks ago, in an Eric Kayser bakery that I go to several times a week, I picked up on an unusual yet rather pleasant smell.  Yet all I was surrounded by was bread and pastries.  In all truth, there was also a variety of bottled drinks and boxes of prepared dishes in self-service, but the smell could not come from there.  Noticing that there was a lady ahead of me in line, I said, '"Ca sent le poisson ici !" ("Why it smells like fish in here!")  She turned around, looking amused, and said, "Effectivement, je sens le poisson aussi !" ("Indeed, I smell fish too !").  I was relieved.

At lunchtime last Wednesday, I was in the cafeteria of my work building.  I took a break from approaching the pretty girls around by joining the queue for the grilled dish of the day.  Along the queue was a dessert stand, from which I picked up one of the ready-made fruit salad bowls.  The guy behind me also picked up a bowl, but I noticed that his was about only 60% full.  Hello!  Small talk moment!  So I intervened by saying to him, "Il y a encore de bols qui sont plus remplis de salade" ("There are still bowls that have more salad"), indicating with a hand gesture the difference between the contents of his bowl and those of the others on the stand.  Once he understood, he replaced his bowl almost instantly.  "Merci !" ("Thanks!"), he said, before making a comment that I did not hear clearly on the benefits of eating fruits.

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