I recently made the mistake of mentioning to a taciturn male member of my ballroom dancing class that he should really work on his small talk. This prompted a frenzied email exchange on the role of small talk, as viewed by men and women.
My friend suggested that many women talk just to make sounds, as opposed to saying something considered and meaningful. Do men not understand the need for small talk? No, he replied; casual conversation would only be employed if a) they were attracted to the girl in question, b) they needed to vehemently disagree with something, c) they wanted to mock someone else in the vicinity, or d) they felt their companion was a curious enough specimen to warrant psychological investigation.
This I found somewhat depressing. Surely there is still a place for agenda-free, polite comments that ease social tension and fill otherwise awkward silences?
At worst, small talk can be embarrassingly trite, ranging from the weather to transport difficulties, from health to holidays, and from occupations to?well, the weather. Among the members of my dance class, I often hear (coming out of my own mouth as well as the mouths of others) well-worn conversation starters such as ‘Been here before?’ or ‘Been dancing long?’
The former unfortunately can sound remarkably like a pick-up line when uttered in the wrong tone of voice, while the latter is fraught with peril, as when said in too patronising a tone of voice implies you doubt from their recent performance that they have been dancing longer than a minute.
I suggested to my dubious male friend that small talk is however a necessary ice-breaker in a dance class, giving you the chance to make a connection with the person who will shortly be holding you in their arms.
It can also be terrifying coming into a new environment and attempting to take on a new skill, so a bit of friendly chit-chat can put beginners at their ease, and make the whole ordeal less nerve-wracking. Light conversation might make your partner relax, and perhaps encourage them to really have a go, and, more importantly, to come back next week.
However, my friend pointed out that for many men, trying to remember both their steps and the lead was a tall order, so adding talking to the mix was really asking too much. Perhaps this is the ultimate test of multitasking, in which women are more likely to succeed, able to chatter and cha cha simultaneously. Or perhaps small talk is less of an effort for most women, something that doesn’t require too much concentration, so most of the brainpower can be reserved for dancing.
Unfortunately, some stray into these murky waters who are not equipped to do so, cheerfully carrying on conversations while treading on their partner’s feet, turning the wrong way and generally sacrificing one activity for the other. While an effort at socialising is appreciated, most would prefer intact toes to the knowledge that you had some problems driving up from Surrey.
Small talk can also be used, wrongfully, as a means of showing superiority ? the fact that learning and executing steps is so easy, so completely beneath you, that you barely have to think about it, and can instead give the issues of the day (the McCanns’ innocence or otherwise; Mourinho’s departure; Paddington’s choice of Marmite) your full attention.
However, on the whole I think a small amount of small talk is healthy. I quite like to know the name of the person I’m dancing with, if only so I don’t have to resort to nicknames when referring to them in conversation (The Jive Man, Mr Bean etc.). Besides, such activities should have a social side to them, and one must begin with small talk, however tedious it may be, in order to progress to conversation, familiarity and friendship.