Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The point of small talk

Yeah, nah, how about this weather?
Have you ever heard a flock of birds at dusk?

They're quite chatty as they settle into their tree for the night.  There's a great deal of squawking and carrying on, which gradually fades into a gentle chorus of back-and-forth chirps.  These are called contact calls, and it's about each member of the flock checking in, reminding and reassuring the rest of their presence.  In some species, a sudden absence of contact calls is a more serious alarm signal than a call of distress.

Some people, including quite a few people on the spectrum, dislike small talk - random chatter about the weather or sport or celebrities or how other people's kids are doing at school.  Who cares? they argue: anyone who gives a stuff about the weather can look up the forecast on the Bureau of Meteorlogy site, and everyone else has already noticed how hot it is without you pointing it out, thank you very much.  Small talk, they say, is useless and people who engage in it are vacuous sheep who should spend their time and energy more wisely.

But what if small talk is human society's contact call?

No, most of us don't really give a stuff about the weather unless we're in the middle of a cylone, snowstorm or heatwave.  And a lot of people are less interested in sport and celebrities and other people's affairs than first appearances would suggest, too.  But what if the weather or the sport or the celeb aren't the point of the conversation at all?  What if it's just about our flock chirping back and forth:

You look like one of us.  Are you one of us?

Yes. I'm one of us.  Are you one of us?

Yes, I'm one of us.  Is everything well?

Yes, everything's well.  Oh look, someone else.  Are you one of us?

And so it goes.  The weather just happens to be something that we all experience, so it's an easy chirp to start on.

Idle conversations about random inconsequential crap might feel pointless.  The subjects themselves might well be pointless.  But the conversation itself isn't.  The fact that the conversation took place, that you and they passed a few moments in contact and reassured each other of your existence and your belonging to the pack, might be the real point of the whole exercise.