Small Talk

If I could change just one thing to make my life easier, just one thing, it would be this: I would learn to love small talk.

Small talk is the giant blah-blah people share to make them feel connected with the world.   It is like mortar, just some junk, conventional and filling, but in the end, it holds people together.

When I think of what I could be doing outside of this basement, the answers are two:  walking in nature or engaging in small talk.    It could be at a picnic or a support group, at a bar or a mall, could be where any humans gather, where they just shoot the shit, trading uninformed opinions on sports or reality television or pop news or whatever the hell the subject of the day is.

I have been able to tolerate small talk, go on to battery power and sit through it, letting the babble spin around me.

I have even been able to simulate small talk, making some pleasantries and keeping up my end.   People even tend to like my small talk because I really seem to be listening and paying attention, really seem to be engaging them, pulling out facts and insights that show I understand what they are talking about, reflecting them well.

It takes work, though, to do that kind of performance.   What I am actually doing is modulating my deep talk to look like small talk, interviewing other people, offering Socratic dialogues, making connections as I dig deeper.

Almost invariably, this exercise ends badly when I show too much, offering too deep a vision, saying something that reveals I am challenging the foundations of their pleasant banter.  I am a conversation stopper,  causing smiles to harden and my partners to drift away to more convivial and agreeable people.

In the world I grew up in there was no such thing as small talk.   Every conversation was a minefield, so being able to tease meaning out of the smallest scraps so that one could avoid explosions was vital.   My Aspergers parents didn’t do small talk, so pulling thoughtful understanding out was the best way to keep them engaged, to fulfill my mothers cutting curiosity or my father’s sweet crackpot intensity.

I learned to stay on the fringes, watching patterns emerge and reading out what was going on underneath.   This always allowed me to be smart, holding the meta like pearls, understanding what was not being said, but it never allowed me to be one of the crowd, going along for the good times.

So much of human communication is bound up in small talk, the jibber-jabber that is about tone and bonding, not about crisp, cutting thought.   Small talk is the foundation of relationships and my hate of it, my inability to engage in it, has always limited me in building bonds.

Instead I always hold the assumption that any human conversation will be full of cloaked intrigues, sometimes considered, but often even invisible to the speaker.  They don’t hold a model of their own belief system, haven’t mapped their emotional triggers, don’t understand their reactionary defences or why they hold them.   They just want to open their mouths and talk while I am looking at the symbolic language they offer for meanings that they don’t even know they have, let alone own.

Joseph Campbell loved the writings of James Joyce because Joyce saw the world as symbol.   I understand that experience; chatter is not just pleasant social intercourse, rather it is a deep and potent revelation of your inner self.

This is, I understand, not how the vast majority of the world sees small talk.    They just see it as small talk, a little connection with other people in the world. The notion that I see it that way is not in their notions, and if they do happen to figure out that I am looking deeper, that makes them uncomfortable.

I love symbolic language but I love it for how it conveys meaning.   I had to learn early how to tease meaning out of rants, how to code meanings so it could be passed through the filters of those around me.

You can’t not know what you know.   Once you have the shaman gift of seeing through the walls of convention you can’t just let them pop up again, making the world simple and compartmentalized again.  Instead, you have to act as if those walls exist, a kind of performance that lets you connect with others who are still living inside their own comfortable boxes.

My life would be much, much easier if I loved small talk.   I could go into the world and just engage in everyday relations with other people, being a part of the flow of connection, blissfully chattering without feeling that every word said had deep connections to the truth networks of the universe.

This is a place where my guru gift gets in the way of convention, where speed, intensity and x-ray vision locks me out of being happy in the moment.  It is why people have turned and cursed me as they understand that once they see the rhythms of the world they can never be innocent again, never easily deny deeper truths.

I know that what the world holds is a vast sea of small talk, that it offers that conversation as a way of pleasant, easy and light connection.

I just also know that I can’t easily enter that discussion, and doing the work to seem like I am doing that takes energy and resource that I no longer have.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t know what I am missing by not being able to engage in that small talk, though.