The topic of “small talk” came up during a workshop discussion on listening. We have the orientation metaphor of “small” before talk as if not very significant. Sometimes a metaphor hides the truth as well as reveals. I would like us to research “small talk.”
Groups gather regularly and informally for small talk. Individuals can also do the same. With small talk we may miss another level of meaning by calling it “small talk.” It has been my experience that conversations are full of clues for indepth conversations. T. S. Eliot wrote a whole play based on this. It is called the “Cocktail Party.”
Lets use John Nesbit’s approach to “small talk” and the “stories we are hearing.” He wrote Megatrends where he took the discipline used in military intelligence to chart the trends taking place in our country.
During WWII he read German newspapers to follow the changes in train schedules and the number of soldiers who had died or were missing. In this way he followed how the war was going for the Germans. After the war he started reading newspapers from five cities in the U. S. that he designated trend setters. As the content of the papers changed he charted what folks were both interested in and well as what was being reported. Newspapers have a limited space so the stories registered significance and changes.
Most of us speak 125 words a minute while 400-600 words move in our brain. Like the newspapers what we select to talk about reveals our interests, values, meaning, etc. Here in Iowa you can be sure the weather will come up in a conversation. Weather appears as small talk. However, weather can be the place where we find the clue to a deeper issue.
An example came from the debriefing time with a Befriender after a hospital visit. She said, “nothing significant happened in the conversation, referring to a farmer who said city folk have it all over farmers. They can plan ahead since their plans are not subject to the weather.” Since she did not know the medical diagnosis of the patient she was unaware he was telling her he would relate to his cancer as a farmer relates to the weather.
Another time we used this same approach in forming a Grief Resource Group at St. Luke’s Hospital in January of 1975. Edith Meier and others concluded after reflecting on the kinds of stories they were hearing from patients, most shared some kind of grief. The stories ranged on a continuum from plans delayed to life threatening illness, with a common denominator, a loss of some kind. The outcome was a study of the grief process itself and the variety of settings that set off the process.
We gathered each Wednesday morning for an hour and a half, non professionals and professional health care providers together. One week we had a presenter and the next an open discussion. We continued through 1992. A variety of outcomes were born in the process including the first Hospice of Scott County.
“Small talk” may not be as small as we think. As a project and for re-search I suggest keeping a journal for a short summary of the stories you are hearing as well as the changes that occur, as small talk moves to larger topics. You can follow up later with an opener, “can you tell me more about ... “ or “I’d like to know more about ...” Small talk can lead to deeper talk.
I remember the “small talk” in a pulmonary support group. I encouraged it when I had the sessions.. On this day it so happened there were four World War 11 vets. One said before we started that he had a terrible night. He could not sleep. He had sat up in a chair. He had a complaint list. The others did not seem to respond to his situation. They were treating it as small talk. As the conversation developed in the group they began to tell stories of their war experiences. Each one became funnier than the last. Laughter was frequent. My usual wrap up question, “What has this been like for you?” The man who began with complaints said, “I feel better.” I said, “I want you to explain that.” He could not explain the change. I was ready and we concluded with a deeper understanding of how stories impact us physiologically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Small talk can be the beginning, be open to the deeper messages.
Marlin Whitmer, BCC
Retired hospital chaplain
Founder of the Befrienders and the art of story metaphor listening.