The Editor’s Desk: Small talk, big trouble

Is the gentle art of small talk at big risk in today’s world?

Owen Dudley Edwards (r) in his natural habitat: surrounded by books and talking to people. (Photo credit: West Port Book festival)

Owen Dudley Edwards (r) in his natural habitat: surrounded by books and talking to people. (Photo credit: West Port Book festival)

Is the fine art of small talk in big trouble?

I ask because I’ve seen a spate of articles in recent weeks about people returning to the office after two years or so of working from home. They often contain a lot of hand-wringing about some of the finer points of office life, such as conversing with colleagues around the water cooler (or whatever the modern equivalent of that is). The articles invariably treat “making small talk” as something tricky or difficult or in need of explaining, which makes me wonder how these people get along in day-to-day life, where making small talk — at the park, or in a queue at a shop, or in the post office lobby — is still a thing that happens, at least in my experience.

I get how making small talk with people you don’t really know could be tricky, especially as people now seem to take umbrage at the slightest thing that could be construed as overstepping. “My co-workers keep asking me about my weekend! Why are they being so intrusive?” They’re not; they’re just killing time until the coffee has brewed, or the meeting starts. Get over yourself.

And really, it’s not that hard to find something to talk to someone else about, no matter who’s involved or what the circumstances are. One of the most brilliant people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing is Owen Dudley Edwards, an Irish historian who was for many years a Reader in Commonwealth and American History at Edinburgh University. Amongst the many books he has written or edited are works about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, and British children’s fiction in the Second World War; he was also the overall editor of the prestigious nine-volume Oxford Sherlock Holmes series from Oxford University Press.

I’d go so far as to say that Owen is perhaps the only person I’ve ever met who could truly be called a genius, and it would be easy to be terrified of being sat next to him at, say, a dinner party and having to make casual conversation. But Owen is also a gentleman, and a kind soul, as I learned in 1993, when he was a large part of an Arthur Conan Doyle conference my husband and I had organized in Edinburgh.

On the first full day of the conference he led us all on a tour of Conan Doyle’s Edinburgh, where at every stop he spoke, at length and without any notes, about the relevance of the spot to ACD. At the Palace of Holyrood he was so entertaining and enlightening that when I looked around I realized our group had doubled in size, since other visitors had gathered around to listen (which prompted the regular tour guide there to shoo us off to a distance so we didn’t steal his customers).

At dinner that night Owen was seated next to the young teenage daughter of a couple from Pennsylvania who were attending the conference. When the dinner was over, the father came over to us and said admiringly how kind Owen had been to their daughter. “I wondered what they’d talk about, but Owen quickly found out that, like him, she was a huge fan of Agatha Christie, so he encouraged her to talk about that and she had a great time discussing her favourite Christie novels.”

And that, in a nutshell, is how to make small talk (or dinner conversation) with someone you don’t know, or don’t know very well: find common ground. It’s always there: you might have to do a little bit of digging to uncover it, but once you do you’ll be off to the races. Bonus points if you let the other person do most of the talking, since they’ll come away thinking you’re a brilliant conversationalist.

In this day and age, where personal devices make it so easy to be lost in our own little worlds, let’s not allow small talk to become a dying art. Our world, and our own lives, will be much poorer places.

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