When you start to think about language, or look at it in any close sort of way, you quickly learn that it is a fascinatingly ineffective tool for the job at hand. So we have this handful of noises we can make with our teeth and tongue and throat, yeah? And we can stitch together a few of those noises into words. All the languages are ancient and inspired by one another, and possibly come from the same shapeless root. So all of the complexity of human thought and emotion is poured into the shapes of these grunts we came up with thousands of years ago, right? And that’s it now, we’re stuck with it as the primary form of communication. I am using the same set of tools as my ancestors did to try and describe mind-bendingly modern realities like millennial witches on TikTok who are obsessed with a green rock called moldavite. It seems like trying to make fire with a stone and two twigs. We should have moved on by now.
One of the most fascinating aspects of language, of course, is small talk, a special dialect we created to make time spent in a room with somebody slightly less awkward (if we had never evolved language, or society, we would not have either of these problems). It’s the beige, ambient noise we make at someone’s brother-in-law when we are forcibly introduced to them at a barbecue. So what have you been up to?, for example. And did you have to come far? Yeah it has been a bit grey lately, hasn’t it? It’s interesting you mention that, actually: normally I don’t really get hay fever, but this year I did. From early social interactions I have had since the easing of lockdown – I am now expecting some firmly worded “excuse me?” texts from everyone I have spent time outside pubs with over the past few weeks – I can safely say that 2021 is set to be the worst year for small talk on human record. We’ve either forgotten how to do it, or we have actively erased the function from our brains through lack of use.
Part of this is very simple – small talk is built on the iron foundation of “what have you been doing lately?”. And in normal times a breezy recap of something you did in the last fortnight should suffice. But we’ve all been locked indoors experiencing almost the exact same year-long trauma, and nothing of even small talk-level note has happened to any of us, and anything that has happened is too wincingly repetitive to even say. What’s more, so many of the important things happening in the actual world in 2021 have been so awful and depressing that they don’t qualify for small talk, as they would immediately kill the vibe. I found myself explaining at length how my bike got a puncture to someone at the pub this weekend. I have never rushed through the first two pints to get through to “actual conversation” faster in my life.
This isn’t a permanent problem, and it is one that will be eased by the reopening of bars and restaurants over the next week, but it will take a while for the old muscle memory to come back. The sad fact is that in the small talk void, there’s been a necessary inversion of social hierarchy: suddenly, “adults who have recently taken on hobbies and got way too into them way too quickly” – previously, the worst people on Earth to talk to – are now vital to getting Britain back talking again. We need someone who, 16 weeks ago, didn’t care about running but now has a slightly gaunt jawline and ferocious opinions about elasticated gymwear just to start us off. They will become social pariahs again in a couple of months, as they should have always been, and go back to wherever it is they dwell – outside climbing centres, maybe, or wherever you can buy kayaking equipment – but for now we really need them.
The lack of small talk isn’t just a pub-garden problem, of course: it’s harder to find the energy to text or email or WhatsApp when the only thing that’s happened to you worth talking about lately is “that time you went to the supermarket and didn’t have to queue to get in”. The best small talk is an ongoing structural support for better conversations – think of it as the linguistic equivalent of stretching your quads out before actual exercise. It’s hard enough knowing what to say to friends I haven’t seen for months beyond “so you decided in the end not to do anything new or interesting with your hair” – and that goes double for the friends-of-friends I’m going to slowly start to bump into now socialising is opening back up again. The next time I go to a picnic I will simply have nothing to say to someone’s sister who I think tried to get on MasterChef once but never actually made it past the auditions.
What’s the solution? My plan is to go absolutely, conversationally rogue: no more tentative, warm-up pre-conversation before the actual chat, just go straight in with my four-pint “Have you ever seen a dead body?” hard stuff. We have a once-in-a-generation chance to take linguistic norms by the reins and remould them into a shape that suits our modern society. I, for one, am going to take it.