Small talk’ as a term, is implicitly derogatory for something profoundly important, write Terry Prone
Before you put a sniffy superior face on you and announce with pride that you’re no good at small talk, think about the duchess of Cambridge for just one little moment. Of course she did her wardrobe thing last week, mixing new and well-worn garments, most in green.
Of course she took endless bunches of flowers from little girls trembling with the excitement of being close to a real live princess, even if she isn’t quite that, technically speaking. Of course she had a go with a hurley and — fair dues to her — managed to connect with the sliotar.
All of this was done with a camera-grabbing sure-footedness reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy’s first visit to the French capital, when her husband, the president, introduced himself before giving a speech, as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris”. Prince William would be forgiven for thinking along those lines.
But the one thing Kate did all the time was small talk. That woman does small talk like a hero, so she does. She understands that the first duty of a good decent human being, even if they’re not in The Firm, is to pay attention to others.
Espousing causes is all very well, but you can do it, and do a professional job of it, without actually connecting with people that much. I give you Princess Anne, who pitches up, speaks up, shuts up, and goes home. Princess Anne delivers to the specifications. Kate Middleton exceeds them, if last week’s star-struck testimony of those who got to shake her hand is to be believed.
However, the evidence of the ones who got up close and personal with her is not really required. Plenty of TV footage attests to her capacity to engage, and to the key methods deployed. Re-reading that last sentence, I’m conscious it suggests artifice or pretence on her part, and that is not intended.
The fact is particular behaviours, whether inborn or taught by a communications professional, a former actor or your mother, have predictable outcomes. You give another driver the finger, they’re not going to follow you home with a bunch of red roses. You pay attention to people the way the duchess does and you leave behind you a line-up of warmed hearts and happy memories.
The attention she delivers is partly accorded by how she looks at others. Analysis of her gaze path would show it focused always and ever on the person in front of her, and when faced with someone smaller than she is, she drops to her hunkers or — if a chair is handy — sits down in order to look at them at an equal level. She turns or “gives” to other people.
Although her husband, on the Irish trip, murmured that the snapping of camera shutters was the background music to their shared lives, she never does that infuriating thing that drives TV directors mad: glancing either at the snappers or at monitors to assess how well she’s doing.
On top of all of that, she has one extra trait. As Gaybo would have put it, she is excira and delira. Particularly the latter. Again, it doesn’t matter whether that instinct for delight is learned or natural.
Or perhaps it does. It’s a curious fact of communication, how we tend to value the natural over the learned. That valence doesn’t apply in any other aspect of life. Literally, nowhere other than communications do we sneer if we learn that a competence was developed through training. Nobody expects a concert pianist to be able to do it “naturally”.
Same with driving: we actively discourage new drivers from expressing their natural talents, forcing them to learn from someone else. Only then does the state hand them a license acknowledging they have learned, not just the skills of driving, but to suppress some of the natural instincts they might have had, before they learned how to do it right. Similarly, when the pilot of our flight comes on to welcome us on board, we don’t devalue their capacity to get us where we’re going because they weren’t born with it.
Another factor is worth considering when we look at learned, rather than inborn behaviours. It’s widely believed behaviour follows attitude. In fact, it’s mostly the other way around. You force people to wear seat belts and they begin to tout the benefits of belt-wearing, whereas you can spend decades and billions trying to influence their attitude and they still won’t buckle up. In that context, if expressing delight in a situation which would bore the bejaysus out of the rest of us is artificial, the hidden benefit is that the delight tends to become real. Pretend to be delighted and other people will believe you, feeding back their appreciation and reinforcing you into believing it yourself.
The best social skill Kate Middleton has, however, is the capacity to question. The footage of her at Jigsaw, the youth mental health facility, and almost everywhere she goes exemplifies it. She asks someone a question.
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If they grind to a halt, she asks them another and in no time the conversation is flowing. Nothing defeats her question-asking, although it has to be said that our President’s wife may have come close as they walked in the grounds of the Áras.
We are told that Sabina Higgins indicated a small nutty thing on the ground. “That’s an acorn,” she told her guest. You have to admit, as a conversation-starter it wasn’t golden. But Kate rose to the challenge by asking how quickly acorns grow. History doesn’t record Sabina’s response. It’s clear, though, that Kate saw her job as nudging along the small talk and she was going to find a question if it killed her.
And yet the world is full of people who announce they’re not good at small talk. They do it with some pride, as if being bad at small talk indicated they operate on a different and higher plane: that they are intellectually and in every other way superior to the randomers fate has burdened them with on any particular day.
They confess it with a shrug, as if small talk competence is like red hair or brown eyes; that it comes at birth and is pretty much beyond the individual’s control. They use it to get themselves out of social engagements or excuse themselves for priming their alcoholic pump before they arrive at such social engagements.
‘Small talk’ as a term, is implicitly derogatory for something profoundly important. That something is the search for commonality, for understanding, for friendship, for someone else to appreciate us. Someone once said that each of us carries an unseen sign on our chests reading: “Please find me interesting.” It’s not that hard to respond to that unspoken plea, and it can make an immeasurable difference to another person at a fragile point in their life.