Law school adds chitchat to the curriculum

Sullivan’s Travels: Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in the famous small talk scene of the 1941 comedy.

Do we need lessons in small talk? Worried that its students are losing the art of conversation, a British university has announced a new module to help them learn to break the ice.

After two days lost in the desert, the traveller is down to his last drop of water. Then, as he staggers towards the next row of sand dunes, he spots a truck with a British number plate coming towards him. When it reaches him, the driver leans out and greets him with a smile. “Hello,” he says. “Warm weather for this time of year, don’t you think?”

This may be a caricature of people’s fondness for small talk, and Britons’ obsession with the weather. But there is no doubt that discussing trivial matters is an important part of how we interact with each other – so much so that one university, BPP, believes it deserves academic encouragement.

The designer of its new course, psychology and philosophy graduate Georgie Nightingall, argues that small talk is unfairly maligned. A lot of people assume that when a stranger asks them a basic question such as “What do you do?”, he or she is just passing the time and has no real interest in them. So they do not bother to answer in an interesting way, and the conversation goes nowhere.

But if we see those questions as an opportunity to get to know the other person properly, and give an encouraging answer, the result can be a fascinating dialogue.

Suppose, for example, someone asks you how you are today. Instead of just saying “Fine”, you could answer with a number out of 10. That opens the way for a discussion about how you measure a good or bad day, which could tell you a great deal about one other.

BPP decided to launch the course after a poll of its students revealed that many of them felt anxious about talking to other people. One third worried about being asked a question they could not answer, and even more – 43% – that they would be judged by the way they spoke. Other research has found that nearly half of young people feel more comfortable communicating via social media than in person.

Diplomats have always known the value of small talk. At a difficult moment in the Northern Ireland peace process, George Mitchell told delegates that they must talk about something other than politics for half an hour. The conversation turned to subjects such as fishing – and as a result, the participants were able to see each other as ordinary people rather than political enemies.

The Queen, who has probably met more people in her lifetime than anyone else, is an acknowledged expert on small talk. One of her favourite questions is “Have you come far?” – which allows the other person to talk about where they live, how they came to be there, whether they like it and whether they had an eventful journey.

In her 1930s book on etiquette, The Perfect Hostess, Rose Henniker Heaton recommends saying something completely wrong, such as “I hear the Grand National is to be run at Epsom this year.” The other person can then immediately correct you, resulting in a lively conversation.

Do we need lessons in small talk?

Sweet nothings

Some say, yes. It is an essential part of getting to know people both socially and professionally: most would run a mile if you instantly launched into a deeply serious discussion. But to do it in a way that does not seem boring, and which leads on to a proper conversation, is an art which some people never get the hang of. Lessons would be all to the good.

Others argue that any kind of conversation is something that needs to evolve naturally. Like hackneyed chat-up lines, small talk out of a textbook would be easy for people to recognise and only make them suspect that you are out to manipulate them. The whole point of small talk is to present yourself in an unthreatening light, which is not something that can be taught.

You Decide

  1. Is social media a better way of communicating than talking face to face?
  2. Some people believe that you should never discuss money, politics or religion with someone you do not know well. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Make a list of 10 possible answers to the question “How are you?” which open the way for an interesting conversation.
  2. Write a comic sketch in which a person who only wants to make small talk meets someone determined to discuss a major philosophical subject.

Some People Say...

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962), American First Lady

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that small talk varies from country to country. According to the writer Santha Rama Rau, “To the Indian, politics are what the weather is to an Englishman. Politics are an introduction to a stranger on a train, they are the standard filler for embarrassing silences in conversation.” Another writer, Peter Hessler, decided there was “no reliable small talk in America” after meeting a man who “within five minutes explained that he had just been released from prison”.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether there is any middle ground between those who despise small talk and those who value it. One of Jane Austen’s characters complains of being “worn out with civility... talking incessantly all night, and with nothing to say.” But American academic Cooper Long compares it to philosophical debate: because it can go on forever without reaching a conclusion, the participants just carry on chatting, and gradually establish a relationship in the process.

Word Watch

Caricature
An exaggerated version. An artist who does ludicrous portraits of people is known as a caricaturist.
BPP
A private university based in London but with outposts in several other parts of Britain.
Maligned
Talked of in an insulting way. It comes from a Latin word meaning bad or evil.
Dialogue
A conversation between two or more people. It is also the part of a book, play or film which takes the form of speech rather than description.
Peace process
The negotiations to end sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
George Mitchell
An American politician appointed by President Clinton to chair the negotiations.
Grand National
The world’s greatest jumping race for horses, held at Aintree. Epsom is a famous course for flat races.

Subjects

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