How Learning To Make Small Talk Can Give You Better, More Enduring Sexual Relationships

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I could give a shit about the weather.  Or sports.  And I’m not all that interested in hearing about someone’s favorite anime show, because I don’t much care for anime.  

I want big talk.  Let’s tussle over politics!  Let’s unpack our heart and dissect our deepest emotions!  Why are we discussing the rain in Spain when there’s genuinely interesting shit we could be talking about?  

But that’s what small talk is: discussing neutral, often plainly boring topics with people you don’t know all that well – and more importantly, may not care to know.  The big lie people tell you about small talk is that mastering the art of the bland discussion somehow turns you into a Level 20 Networker, swinging from connection to connection as you Seal the Deal and flip through your overstuffed Rolodex to call in favors from that woman you met who had the kid with the severe grass allergy.  

But no.  The truth is, a lot of small talks don’t lead anywhere.  They don’t remember you, you don’t remember them, because you were both making nicey-nice at the office cocktail hour and frankly, this talk was the tofu of conversation – acceptable in a pinch, but nobody really wanted it.

So that’s small talk: you endure five minutes of with the guy next to you in line at the airport, you don’t get their Facebook, and this conversation might as well never have happened.

Boy, this sure sounds like a skill you want to master, huh? 

But wait. 

There’s a far better reason to learn how to master small talk. 

Because in truth, a lot of small talk boils down to one main skill: taking interest in something you personally don’t care much about.  Because someone read the opening sentence of this essay right after checking to see whether that inbound pressure front was going to bring a storm by noon and went, “Hey!  I love talking about the weather!”  Somebody just finished placing a bet on the Cavs tonight and went, “Hey!  I love talking about sports!”

And God, anime.  Someone’s already got their itching fingers primed to type in suggestions, ready to explode because they’re sure I haven’t seen all ten seasons of NOVA BLEACH HARUKO.  

So much of “small talk” is “taking time to discuss things that don’t jazz your hands.”  The skill is not “engaging people in conversation,” because honestly, that’s a trivial skill – if someone’s really psyched to tell you about their trip to Italy, learning three variants on “So what happened next?” will get you half an hour of conversation.  

The true skill is not tuning out.  

The true skill is learning to sit back and actively participate in helping them partake in a pleasure that you don’t fully share in.  

Which means the true small talk master has to learn empathy.  Maybe you’re not interested in kids, but you can be interested in the way this stranger’s face brightens when they show you pictures of some random toddler.  Maybe you don’t know anything about basketball, but you can try to understand the artistry involved for this LeBron fellow to dribble a ball past professional-grade opposition and get it in a basket.  

What small talk teaches you is not to endure, but to find sources of pleasure in places that normally give you none. 

Now, that has one small benefit, but that’s not the big one I’m discussing – the truth is that sometimes, learning to find pleasure in odd places actually expands your pleasure center.  My daughter loooooves football, to the point where she tries to hide her tears of joy when the Patriots win, and years of listening to her squee “Did you see that play?” and having her dissect the skill involved has let me watch the Superbowl and occasionally appreciate a fine maneuver.  I’ll never actively tune into a football game, but now if a friend really wants to watch the game, it’s not like chewing tin foil.  Watching the Browns lose (for there is no other outcome) is a perfectly lovely way to spend an afternoon, even if it’s not my first choice.

But that’s not the real benefit.

The real benefit is that mastering small talk builds the skills that make you a better person to date.  Which means that lovers stick around for longer, marriages don’t dissolve as quickly, relationships stay fine-tuned and sleek as dolphins. 

Because that skill of “I’m not necessarily into this, but I’ll find ways to get pleasure out of it” is critical in long-term relationships.  If the only time you’ll willingly in an activity is when you’re getting unalloyed pleasure out of it, well, your relationships are likely to fall apart.  

Here’s real reasons I’ve seen marriages fall apart:

* Casey has picked up an exciting new hobby, a hobby that takes them to lots of conventions and get-togethers.  Glenn, however could give a shit about Casey’s hobby, and clearly tunes out whenever Casey’s is squeeing about the new thing they learned today.  Casey learns that they can’t talk to Glenn about a good 40% of their life, so they learn to wall off large portions of their internal emotions from Glenn, and eventually just stop telling Glenn things altogether. Then Casey meets a nice person at their hobby, one who’s caring and willing to listen to all the things Casey can no longer talk to Glenn about, and, well….

* Lou doesn’t really care much about the laundry being done. Pat, however, does.  And because Lou has that selfish streak of “I’ll only do this if there’s something for me in it,” Pat winds up doing all the laundry, always, with Lou never pitching in.  Eventually Pat feels underappreciated and overwhelmed, and starts to question whether they need to be with such a selfish jerk like Lou, and, well….

* Sam likes sex, but doesn’t see any reason to be physically affectionate unless sex is in the offing – no cuddles, no hand-holding, that stuff doesn’t interest them except as a prelude to intercourse.  Except Morgan does crave physical affection at all times, and feels isolated and alone, and eventually comes to cringe as they realize Sam’s affectionate ruffling of their hair means SEX NAO PLEASE – and Morgan doesn’t feel like being a sex dispenser upon demand when they’re not feeling desired elsewhere, and, well….

There’s lots of other marriage-ending situations like that, mostly boiling down to “This partner has never mastered the skill of generosity.”  If Lou had said, “I don’t care about the laundry, but I do like seeing your face light up when you realize you don’t have to do this thing alone, so lemme help,” Pat wouldn’t be overwhelmed.  If Sam learned to take pleasure in Morgan’s purring when they cuddled, Morgan wouldn’t reject their overtures as consistently.  If Glenn could take pride in Casey’s hobby even if they weren’t a die-hard hobbyist, then Casey wouldn’t have to wall their life off…

And the good news is, this is a skill you can learn!  Empathy is a muscle, which you can activate through steady practice.  And like a lot of exercise, the activity of empathy often feels weird and artificial and pointless at first. 

But trust me. I’ve seen too many folks who sniffed, “Why would I want to learn to talk about boring stuff with people I don’t care about?”  And they went on to have relationships where they never did boring stuff either, and those relationships shriveled like a microwaved spider after a few years because it turns out, “Doing boring stuff” is a mighty useful skill.  

Whereas the people who’ve said, “This is boring, but these people obviously care deeply about it, so can I make a game where I find a way to make their passions and mine intersect?”  Those people I’ve seen go on to often have more fruitful relationships, because assuming you don’t sublimate all your interests in the sense of uplifting someone else, you’ll find that “learning to take pleasure from your partner’s pleasure” is a quite necessary lubrication.  

And the easiest way to shoot womp rats in the Beggar’s Canyon of Compassion is to talk about the weather with lonely people in airports.  It probably won’t win you any lifelong friends, nor will it forge connections that will make you the CEO of a Detroit car company.  

But when you find someone who does light your fire, it’ll help you to keep their flame properly kindled.  

Trust me.  It’ll be worth it.  

7 Comments

  1. Anonymous Alex
    Apr 18, 2018

    Interesting proposal, which I shall ruminate upon further. It does not, at first glance, jibe with my experience. While in theory the skills should be transferable, I find the practice of talking about “boring” stuff with someone I care about and with someone I don’t care about to be quite different.

    Therefore, my first impression is that, while I agree with you about the relationship skill, I’m not so sure that making small talk with strangers will help. Or, at least, help me.

    -Alex

  2. Douglas Scheinberg
    Apr 18, 2018

    ::nitpick::

    Anime as a medium is broad enough that there’s probably something out there you’d like, even if the most popular or “typical” anime shows and movies aren’t what you’re into. I am kind of surprised, though, considering your love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, that you haven’t found an anime that pushes the same kind of buttons successfully, like maybe Cowboy Bebop, which I haven’t seen myself but someone has probably tried to push on you at some point.

    Anyway, if you like internet cat videos, you might find “Chi’s Sweet Home” amusing; it consists of three minute long “episodes” telling the story of an adorable kitten that gets separated from his mother and then adopted by a human family. Obviously it’s only for people who like cats, but I bet it’s different from most of the NOVA BLEACH HARUKOs out there!

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 19, 2018

      I told my boss, who is a huge anime fan, that someone would show up in the comments to give me a list. 🙂

  3. Dawn
    Apr 18, 2018

    My husband likes to tell me about his work day. In detail, which means explaining sometimes minute aspects of IT to me. I understand as much as 30% of that side of the conversation, but what I *do* understand is the joy he gets from explaining these things to me. In turn I listen closely for things that give me a “hook” into what he’s talking about, particularly any insights into the people he works with, so I can do a better job of active listening.

    It has taken me many years to learn how important it is to listen to things I may not want to understand and frankly, couldn’t care less about, because I care about and respect the person who wants to tell them to me.

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 19, 2018

      Our love language is minutiae, and we do the exact same thing.

  4. Eponymous Eric
    Apr 18, 2018

    I concur: I’m not a small talker by nature, like you I yearn for depth and substance in conversation…but without having learned the pleasure of connecting with another through chatting, I agree with your piece in some detail.

    Learning how to weasel details of the day from my school-aged daughter taught me the most, but six months in retail ought to give anyone the basics, if they’re willing to learn.

    There’s a mirror-image to your point, which just occurs to me: there are those who are SO steeped in whatever their passion is that they simply cannot (or, honestly, cannot be bothered to) listen to or talk about anything beyond the minutiae of their fandom (for lack of a better word) that one may come to regret opening a conversation with them. This is especially tough when it’s a marriage partner.

    Noetheless, an essential skill for sharing a planet with so many strangers…. Thanks for the article.

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 19, 2018

      Yeah, that’s why I put in that caveat about not letting people override you, because holy crap some nerds WILL unleash on you like a pressure fountain. But there’s a difference between “having no boundaries” and “expanding those boundaries while still keeping unwanted experiences out.”

      I could not imagine being married to someone like that. Eeep.

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