First, a comment from reader Joe Ruiz of Glendora about my column on whether we should skip small talk and go more to substantive talk:
Joe wrote today, Friday, March 12:
Technology has changed the way we communicate. While we bury ourselves in a computer writing or researching, listening to talk radio in the background satisfies our need to be part of a political or economic conversation without moving our lips. Substantive talk is most rewarding, but its tough to do in a limited social setting as we always seem to be in a hurry to get a task accomplished before the next.
I received my degree in social sciences so I’m curious how people act and relate to others but I must admit that I’ve become more introspective and would rather hike in the local mountains at a quick pace and contemplate the thoughts of the day.
I was playing full court basketball at a local gym until a few years ago when I finally surrendered to the pain. I was playing with a lot of guys in their 20’s & 30’s but we didn’t even engage in small talk. It was all about playing on a winning team so you could play again. They tolerated playing with a guy who passed the mid-century mark which was good enough for me as we perspired and yelled.
Cell phones allow us to make quick conversations through speech or text. Computers allow us to send our thoughts electronically sans verbalization.
Will substantive talk between people become as passe’ as sending a letter through the post office? With all the corporate money given the okay by the Supreme Court to flood political campaigns, can substantive talk survive the machinations of the corporatists?
Are we doomed to repeat slogans through small talk from sound bites shaped by the economic royalists as warned by FDR?
Here’s what I wrote:
‘HI, can you believe that rain? It’s like a monsoon out there.”
“No, thank you. I don’t like red-bean paste. It doesn’t do it for me.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot these days about joy. What is it and how do you get it? You ever wonder about that?”
The first two are conversation starters I’ve actually spoken to fellow humans. It’s safe to call these examples of small talk.
The third is one I’ve said in my mind but never actually tried on someone, let alone a stranger or an acquaintance. Though I did bring up the topic of “joy” with a close friend on the phone back in December and also in my family Christmas letter. The latter is an example of what social scientists call “substantive talk.”
Don’t worry. There won’t be a quiz at the end of this column. But there will be a question: What kind of talk do you prefer? Small talk or substantive talk? Why?
That’s the same question researchers at the University of Arizona wanted to know. They hooked up 79 subjects with a hidden mic that recorded conversation snippets every 12.5 minutes for four days. Then they assessed their well-being by talking to their friends and learning how they spent their time, etc. Researchers concluded the happiest people in the study engaged in small talk one-third less often than the unhappiest subjects. Happy people have twice as many substantive conversations as unhappy people. Of course, this is part of a hypothesis that says connectivity with others — deeper friendships — makes people happier.
I am smiling right now. Because I am not a lover of small talk. I would much rather talk to people about solving the state budget crisis, wondering if they’d pay more taxes to save teacher jobs, or how they keep up an exercise routine without getting bored.
My poor grade in Small Talk 101 doesn’t help me meet people. I admit it. That’s why Brooklyn-based communications expert Don Gabor says small talk is indeed important because it is a gateway to “substantive conversations.”
I disagree. I’ve been having small talk with people — people I call friends — for years. And it doesn’t push my happiness buttons. I’d much rather ask them what their view of God is, or what do they consider the best qualities in a mate, or would they like to go hiking and talk about nature?
I joined the West San Gabriel Valley YMCA because it is the only gym I can stand going to. I abhor those high-pressure “health clubs” with their double-talking salesman and meat-market atmospheres.
Last week, while shooting hoops because I suddenly became bored with the treadmill, I saw the staffer (he’s the guy with arms like tree trunks) chatting with a member. The young man was talking about his girlfriend problems. From my healthy bit of eavesdropping, I could tell their conversation went beyond small talk.
Well done, I thought. Then I asked my wife, Karen, about it. She said guys find a gym a safe place to hang out in and talk. It used to be the barbershop. And in my Temple City neighborhood, the donut shop, where a group of older men would shoot the breeze over a maple bar and a cup of hot coffee. Often, I was tempted to go up to them and ask: Do you enjoy small talk or more substantive discussions? I now ask you the same question. Be honest.
If us guys stick to superficial topics like the weather and sports, is it because we aren’t happy?
Hmmm … How about those Angels. The Lakers really need to get their act together. You think it will finally be warmer this weekend?
I also got an email from Bill Bell, the former editor of the Whittier Daily News who always loved to write columns (still does) by talking to people in Uptown Whittier about substantive topics.
Here’s to some deeper conversations this weekend. Cheers!