Up Front by Emma Hart

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Up Front: Casual, Shallow and Meaningless

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  • Emma Hart, in reply to Hebe,

    Emma Hart: I loved this piece; TMI are my middle initials. Why have a conversation if it's not a real one?

    Hebe: you must come out the next time we go for Beers and Talking About Sex.

    So if you don't do small talk (I'm assuming we mean that initial "Hi, how are you? etc" that people do when they first meet), what does that first blooming of friendship look to many of you?

    Every friend I have made since varsity, I have met on line, even if we live in the same city. Four of what are now the dearest people in my life I "met" on this very website here. Technically, it was Damian Christie who introduced me to David Haywood, and David who introduced me to Russell.

    In early November, I am taking one of my old uni friends up to Wellington and introducing him to a bunch of people he's never met. Weaving those two groups of mine together makes me ridiculously happy.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 4650 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Ian Dalziel,

    Really good stuff Ian, I like that one very much.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10629 posts Report Reply

  • Marcus Turner,

    I recognise amongst the postings here a certain amount of bewilderment and possibly even pain of being excluded from something. Small talk seems so pointless to many people: it seems like a key to some club from which they're excluded. A club to which they don't know if they want to belong, anyway.

    I think it comes down to the difference between communication and communion. Language can be used to transmit relevant, important information. Communion is something else: it's somehow simply affirming that we're part of the same group, sharing the same space at the same time. I don't know if everyone has quite the same need for this, but I do know that humans are essentially a social species. Even if you don't think of yourself as a people-person, you are social.

    Men in some villages in Vanuatu get blotto in the evenings on kava. They don't talk; they just sit together, experiencing being together. Similar situations apply among men in some Australian traditional aboriginal communities: men sitting silently together for long periods, content in each other's company without a need to express this in words.

    Words don't seem to be able to express the need for communion as well as many of us would like, so we've developed codes. When someone asks how you are, it's not unreasonable to assume that they don't really want to know, but they do want to somehow share being human with you. These codes are found all over the place. In some parts of China, a standard greeting is "Have you eaten?"; in some parts of Japan it's "Are you making money?" An answer is expected, and there are standard-forms in which the answer is generally given.

    But this small talk isn't about the literal meaning of the words. And perplexing though it seems, it's an important part of being human. Some people seem to be able to read non-verbal signals (intentionally given, or not) and find the right thing to say. Perhaps they've deliberately learned how to do this, or are somehow just gifted with perception and skill.

    To those who have difficulty with small talk, I'd simply suggest trying to be polite. Small talk might be learnable, but the real skill is in the perception of how other people are. I'm not sure about the extent to which this perception can be learned.

    Sorry for the long post.

    Since Nov 2006 • 212 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel, in reply to Marcus Turner,

    common wealth...

    I think it comes down to the difference between
    communication and communion.

    Yes, the introduction of the iCat has been a
    great breakthrough for modern man...
    (and they always land on their pads!)

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7876 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Marcus Turner,

    men sitting silently together for long periods, content in each other's company without a need to express this in words

    Thank you. For several decades, the prevailing public discourse has treated inter-personal communication largely as being about talking (especially about feeelings). I enjoy that myself, but many don't - particularly men.

    And they shouldn't have to.

    It was a joy watching John Campbell's respectful story last night about retiring All Black Brad Thorn's visceral enjoyment of the game. Doesn't seem to be online yet.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19667 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Marcus Turner,

    Sorry for the long post

    You must be thinking of some other website :)

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19667 posts Report Reply

  • JacksonP, in reply to Jackie Clark,

    You could tell them that you will call the person in that seat John

    This is a whole other debate, but anglicising, or just changing, the names of people whose birth name we have difficulty pronouncing seems (euphemistically speaking) troublesome.

    what does that first blooming of friendship look [like] to many of you?

    At first tentative
    Full of promise and hope
    Everlasting spring.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2011 • 2448 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock, in reply to Marcus Turner,

    When someone asks how you are, it’s not unreasonable to assume that they don’t really want to know, but they do want to somehow share being human with you. These codes are found all over the place. In some parts of China, a standard greeting is “Have you eaten?”; in some parts of Japan it’s “Are you making money?” An answer is expected, and there are standard-forms in which the answer is generally given.

    But this small talk isn’t about the literal meaning of the words. And perplexing though it seems, it’s an important part of being human. Some people seem to be able to read non-verbal signals (intentionally given, or not) and find the right thing to say. Perhaps they’ve deliberately learned how to do this, or are somehow just gifted with perception and skill.

    To those who have difficulty with small talk, I’d simply suggest trying to be polite. Small talk might be learnable, but the real skill is in the perception of how other people are. I’m not sure about the extent to which this perception can be learned.

    There is an entire section in Kate Fox’s ‘Watching the English – The hidden rules of English behaviour’ on ‘The rules of weather-speak’. Talking about the weather in the UK is a nice safe topic for initial small-talk, as long as you stick to certain call-and-response rules. Going outside the half-dozen or so acceptable call-and-responses is a strict no-no. The intention is much the same as you have outlined.

    Greeting small-talk does have the form of a ritual, possibly with the instinctual purpose of establishing non-hostile intentions, the fact the other isn’t a dangerous crazy, and so on. A bit like dogs sniffing each others arses. More than once recently, when asked ‘how are you?’ I’ve been tempted to rely: ‘et cum spirito tuo’.

    I don’t really mind the initial ‘handshake’* greeting protocols (to repurpose a computer phrase back to it’s inital form), but it’s when the conversation after that just ends up stuck in the same old cliched ruts. I sometimes feel like grabbing people by the lapels and snarling ’for fucks sake, try saying something original for once in your life’ (hey, my subsequent arrest would at least give the other guests a talking point).

    I can see the purpose, but I personally find it a waste of my life.

    *trivia of the day – the handshake initially developed as a way of showing the other person your hand was empty and that you weren’t about to stab them with a concealed dagger. Interesting, eh?

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock, in reply to JacksonP,

    This is a whole other debate, but anglicising, or just changing, the names of people whose birth name we have difficulty pronouncing seems (euphemistically speaking) troublesome.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Jackie Clark,

    So if you don't do small talk (I'm assuming we mean that initial "Hi, how are you? etc" that people do when they first meet), what does that first blooming of friendship look to many of you?

    Good question. For me it's an extremely gradual process. I can have many very enjoyable and cordial interactions with people without having the slightest further interest in them. I can also have very deep and engaged and enjoyable interactions with people, without them ever being people I'd socialize with (colleagues are often like this). It's quite mysterious really, I can't account for it at all, how my closest friends became that way. I can't remember where I met them, or any crucial engagement in which it became clear to me that these were my bosom buddies.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10629 posts Report Reply

  • Danielle,

    I think the 'communion' aspects and the 'searching for friendship' aspects are two different types of interaction. The first can lead to the second, but mostly doesn't. I generally assume that the chance of finding peeps on my, uh, 'wavelength' </hippy> is vanishingly small, but the 'hey, here we are being human together' thing is perfectly OK too. I don't find it difficult to talk to people (although they might find me a bit of a Babbling Weirdo, but that's been an issue of mine since childhood).

    That being said, I fucking hate the hairdresser and have cut my own hair for years to avoid it. There's something about being trapped in one spot, staring at your own squashed, pale face, while people hover about your person, concentrating oddly on one part of you... combining that WITH small talk is just unbearable. What a waste of an hour. Now, pedicures: *those* I can get behind. Massage chair, pretty coloured toenails, and no one says a word apart from 'twenty dollars please'.

    Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3828 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel, in reply to JacksonP,

    Fairweather friends...

    At first tentative
    Full of promise and hope
    Everlasting spring.

    a well seasoned hi cue...
    ;- )

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7876 posts Report Reply

  • Kyhwana,

    Craig, that could go awesomley or poorly, depending on the person you tell it to. ;)

    Hamilton • Since Jul 2011 • 14 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Marcus Turner,

    Perhaps they've deliberately learned how to do this, or are somehow just gifted with perception and skill.

    Both, I'd say, in most cases. The naturally gifted simply get more opportunities to learn, so a feedback loop is established. Good post, by the way. Not too long at all.

    The thing I feel, and I think I feel it in the company of PAS types particularly, is a sense that I intimidate people in a physical way. One of my most powerful peer groups over the years has been sporting people, and that does rub off in carriage and manner. It's very strange, but I have noticed if I slouch and compress myself down and reduce direct eye contact, I get on better. Weird and uncomfortable, but I guess we assume the shapes of our tribes over time.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10629 posts Report Reply

  • JacksonP, in reply to BenWilson,

    Weird and uncomfortable, but I guess we assume the shapes of our tribes over time.

    Interestingly, I've always felt short, even though I'm now 185cm. Late growth spurt meant until 5th form I was shorter than everyone. I actually believe it has helped with my demeanour, as while I have been called many things, intimidating isn't one of them. However, that natural propensity to lean back and tilt the head has played havoc on my back, so it comes at a cost.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2011 • 2448 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to BenWilson,

    Distance moderates height and bulk.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19667 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to Rich Lock,

    This is a whole other debate, but anglicising, or just changing, the names of people whose birth name we have difficulty pronouncing seems (euphemistically speaking) troublesome.

    For some people it's not optional. I'm told that Sinhalese uses almost the full set of known human phonemes, but then you add tonal languages to the mix and for most people actually pronouncing someone's name might require anything from a few minutes practicing to a lifetime of retraining. Even hearing the name might not be possible - apparently distinguishing some tonal shifts can only be learnt by infants.

    My partner is known as Fong, Fung, Foo-ang, Foo-ong and probably other names despite her actual name being the eminently pronouncable Phuong (it's easy if you're Vietnamese, anyway). Her family usually pronounce it differently when speaking English and Vietnamese, making the question of "how it's pronounced" a bit of an open one.

    I have been known to completely derail introductions by saying "how do you pronounce your name again, sorry, I didn't catch that" and then practicing until I get it right. Or the owner gives up.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1177 posts Report Reply

  • Robyn Gallagher, in reply to Craig Ranapia,

    The worse small talk starter ever (and one I use distastefully often) is "And what do you do?" How the hell do you answer that?

    "Well, I do lots of things."

    Raglan • Since Nov 2006 • 1946 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Marcus Turner,

    men sitting silently together for long periods

    Whereas kiwi men just grunt

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4449 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to JacksonP,

    but anglicising, or just changing

    You misunderstood, get their names on the first day (whatever their names are), note then that you will call whomever sits in that seat by that name.

    That means John may well get called Miriama

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4449 posts Report Reply

  • JacksonP, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    That means John may well get called Miriama

    Ah, now I get it. Thanks Harold.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2011 • 2448 posts Report Reply

  • Percy Flage, in reply to Robyn Gallagher,

    The late Marcel Marceau had little patience for phatic discourse. His response to the the 'and what do you do?' question was, 'I breathe.' Succinct and truthful, albeit rather rude and dismissive.

    Since Apr 2011 • 5 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Robyn Gallagher,

    The worse small talk starter ever (and one I use distastefully often) is "And what do you do?" How the hell do you answer that?

    "Well, I do lots of things."

    I still haven't worked out a way to say "I've got a TV show" without sounding like a wanker ...

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22724 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to Russell Brown,

    I still haven't worked out a way to say "I've got a TV show" without sounding like a wanker ...

    Isn't that why you'd say "I've got my own TV show"? I can imagine using that after being regaled with wanker-stories from someone, whether of the "I'm so rich" or the "I'm such an arsehole" variety.

    Whereas kiwi men just grunt

    Nah, mate, we say maaaate, mate. See, mate, you just gotta find a mate and get down with his mates and you'll be great, mate. Maaaate!

    With men I often do shared activities rather than huge chat, but it works for me. And if it takes 3 hours in the workshop to get to "the missus is a bit crook", so be it. I'm there, he's there, he knows I care.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1177 posts Report Reply

  • JacksonP, in reply to Russell Brown,

    "I've got a TV show"

    And a mighty fine one at that.

    One of my friends in Wellington used to say 'well, when I'm not making milkshakes and selling coke, I drive the Cable car'. He was in fact a film editor. Which was about the coolest thing any of us were doing at the time.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2011 • 2448 posts Report Reply

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