When I was a little kid, one of the nastiest fights I ever heard between my parents was after a business dinner, where my ad-man dad had "abandoned" my novelist mother with Ken Venturi, a professional golfer and alleged "shallow asshole."
My mother was legendarily terrible at making small talk, a failing that she considered a virtue, like George Washington's disability when it came to telling a lie. "Talking about the weather," as Mom called it, wasn't just boring, it was a moral affront.
Over the years I've developed two objections to my mom's attitude, that help me separate myself from it, which is useful when dealing with shallow assholes.
First: Shallow assholes are people too. It's a test of your own depth and curiosity to find out what really does matter to a small talker, and get him or her talking about something that you consider "real." When I've had the energy, I've never failed at this. Ken Venturi, tell me: What was your father like?
Second: Though I, too, find small talk offensive, I often wonder why. On a long sailing trip last fall, I had many hours to examine this question—12 hours per day, spent on watch (sometimes in the pitch black Atlantic Ocean) with one of the great small talkers of all time, a retired fire chief who had apparently learned how to kill long shifts in firehouses with jokes, one-liners, short-stories-long and assorted other verbal static.
He was like a one-man radio station, the only variety in his sound-stream being a nightly glass of gin, which caused the talking (somehow) to speed up and skip even more lightly across the glistening surface of things.
The fellow listened about as well as a radio station too, but happily, he didn't quiz his listeners either, or even require much feigned acknowledgement of his words. So eventually, it actually was like having the radio on. His monologue gently faded in and out of my consciousness and became a kind of comfort.
My late mother, wherever she was, did not approve. "Shallow asshole," she kept saying, in my head.
I'm of two minds, and maybe you'd like to weigh in:
1. There is nothing wrong with small talk, however you define it, unless it is somehow displacing big talk, however you define that. People have always talked to pass the time.
2. No! Talk is not a toy. You don't use dinner plates as ping-pong paddles, and you don't trade words just to pass the time. What is wrong with being quiet?
I realize there's a whole football field of middle ground here and that my definitions are imprecise at best. Still, I think most people have either one of the above sensibilities, or the other.
And I'm thinking the Small Talkers ought to hang with the Small Talkers and the Communicators should sail with the Communicators.
What are you thinking?
Talk to me.