Incessant communication: an ever-present onslaught of “How are you’s” and “Hello’s”. Colleagues greet you with a smile and a dead-eyed stare; dinner table twaddle avoids the controversial. Words flit and flitter, restless as autumn leaves in turbulent air — this is the cacophony of the 21st century, the unremitting hubbub of a world governed by language.
The 21st century: the era of unending interaction, and yet we fail to say anything.
Ironically, this cultural phenomenon — the act of talking itself — is not something we talk about. The boundaries of conversational etiquette, which generally exist as the unspoken “elephant” of every social interaction, must not remain undiscussed; if we’d like to engage in compelling discussion, we need to talk about smalltalk.
Especially in light of all the atrocities plaguing our nation and our world (re: the UN’s latest climate report, the polarization of what we once dubbed a “democracy,” and the normalization of derogatory rhetoric), it’s imperative that we engage in collaborative discourse. To avoid the discussion of hard-to-talk about topics means to sweep atrocity “under the rug” — to become a bystander and thereby a latent perpetrator. We as a society can’t continue simply saying “good” when asked how we’re doing. We are not “good.” We are, in fact, bad. And when we’re feeling bad — be our feelings related to the state of the world or the state of ourselves — we need to inform one another.
The unfortunate truth of the matter is this: social etiquette bolsters hollow conversation. Rather than partake in meaningful dialogue, we tend to turn to topics trite and timeworn: commuting times, weekend plans, and workplace obligations. All too often, we hide behind the guise of a smile, acting politely interested in the extremely boring trivialities of someone else’s life. Our darker, more complex musings are reserved for our own contemplation — shielded from the eyes of our contemporaries because, in today’s world, discussion of anything real or pertinent is deemed taboo.
Silence, we believe, is ungainly. We live in perpetual fear of awkwardness, of introspection — instead of embracing pauses as moments rife with meaning, we seek to fill up these stretches of quiet with mindless chatter. Though those less adept in the art of idle prattle — alias smalltalk — are seen as being gauche and graceless, perhaps they’re merely reluctant to cower behind a facade of inauthenticity; perhaps they see no virtue in meekly babbling about nothing.
Yes, I realize that smalltalk may not be wholly unwarranted: to some degree, we all want to be liked, and there’s no crime in polite albeit meaningless conversation. But does anyone genuinely enjoy ingenuine banter? Shouldn’t language, which has been cultivated and perfected through centuries of oral and written history, be granted some respect? Smalltalk in Western society operates on a delicate construction of lies and artifice, and we’re usually able to recognize well-mannered chit-chat for what it is — a shallow attempt to be socially agile.
Bearing this in mind, it seems there exists a paradox in our modern day interactions: though we scorn falsity, we disdain discourtesy. Each time we peruse the aisles of Whole Foods — or perhaps take the dog for a stroll in the park — and find ourselves suddenly in the presence of a hapless acquaintance, we’re faced with a trying choice: to be rude, or politely insincere? Though we generally take the latter route, we’re not thinking about the other person — instead, we’re conceptualizing a way to gracefully make our exit.
So why can’t we be genuinely interested in one another — or, for that matter, genuine at all? If we ask too many questions, we’re nosy; too few, and we’re impertinent. In essence, we’re bound, with ropes thick and unyielding, by social etiquette; we’ve become actors in the world of our everyday.