Small Talk

I was sitting in the MRI suite the other day, waiting for my research participant to finish his scan, when I heard the two radiographers talking in the background. They were discussing the various supermarkets in the area, with an intensity that came from a deep and thorough knowledge of the topic.

“Sainsbury’s is here, right next to this roundabout.”

“Ah, but surely you would have to pass an Aldi AND a Morrisons to get there.”

Well, not if you go through this road. Plus, there’s also a Tesco nearby!”

“You don’t say…”

“They have the best offers when it comes to…”

On and on the conversation went. My first reaction was to try to tune out the ‘noise’ and return to the article I was reading in The Economist. “I’m just not that good at making small talk,” was what I told myself.

Then I thought: Why do we label conversations like these as ‘small talk’?

I mean, it was obviously important to the people discussing the issue. And yet, exchanging pleasantries, talking about the weather etc. are all lumped together under the category of ‘small talk’, presumably to differentiate them from the real business at hand, the actual ‘important stuff’.

In all honesty though, we often overestimate the importance of distant events in our life, and underestimate the significance of little things around us.

Take the topic of this week’s The Economist, for example, the one that I was holding in my hand:

No doubt, these issues are important to someone. But who am I kidding? What role do I have to play in any of these? Sure, I may know about events happening a thousand miles away, but what use is that if I can’t even give a stranger directions to the nearest supermarket?

My point is that we need to reassess the balance between what we consider to be important vs what seems trivial in our life. Small talk does not necessarily mean idle talk i.e. gossip. Often, they mean more to people than whatever is splashed across the headlines that day.

Silently, I slip my copy of The Economist into my bag. I focus instead on the conversation in the background, which has now evolved into careful inspection of the exact locations of various supermarkets in Google Maps.

In my mind, I slowly begin to memorise the details:

So to get to Sainsbury’s, take the main road north until you come to a T-junction, not the big one, but the one with a rickety fence next to it. Turn right, and keep going until you pass a flock of sheep…