Posts Tagged ‘small talk’

Photo: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum, for the New York Times
Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard once wrote about getting into trouble in America because he couldn’t do small talk.

When I saw an article in the Atlantic about how Americans need small talk, I thought immediately about Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s disastrous meal with an unnamed famous America author.

First, James Parker’s small-talk overview in the Atlantic: “The correct answer to the question ‘How are you?’ is Not too bad.

“Why? Because it’s all-purpose. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the conditions, Not too bad will get you through. In good times it projects a decent pessimism, an Eeyore-ish reluctance to get carried away. On an average day it bespeaks a muddling-through modesty. And when things are rough, really rough, it becomes a heroic understatement. Best of all, with three equally stressed syllables, it gently forestalls further inquiry, because it is — basically — meaningless.

“Small talk is rhetoric too. Americans in particular are small-talk artists. They have to be. This is a wild country. The most tenuous filaments of consensus and cooperation attach one person to the next. So the Have a nice days, the Hot enough for yous, the How ’bout those Metses — they serve a vital purpose. Without these emollient little going-nowhere phrases and the momentary social contract that they represent, the streets would be a free-for-all, a rodeo of disaster.

“But that’s the negative view. Some of my most radiant interactions with other human beings have been fleeting, glancing moments of small talk. …

“I was out walking the other day when a UPS truck rumbled massively to the curb in front of me. As the driver leaped from his cab to make a delivery, I heard music coming out of the truck’s speakers — a familiar, weightless strain of blues-rock noodle. … Yes. It had to be. The Grateful Dead, in one of their zillion live recordings. And I knew the song. It’s my favorite Dead song. ‘ “ China Cat Sunflower”?’ I said to the UPS guy as he charged back to his truck. A huge grin: ‘You got it, babe!’

“The exchange of energy, the perfect understanding, the freemasonry of Deadhead-ness that flashed instantaneously between us, and most of all the honorific babe—I was high as a kite for the next 10 minutes.” More at the Atlantic, here.

Now for Knausgaard and the inevitable culture clash.

“I told [my American photographer Peter] about the last time I was in New York, when a well-known American writer invited me for lunch. I brought three of my children with me, none of whom speak English. I thought we might have some difficulty, but hoped for the best. He came and picked us up at the hotel, and we took the subway down to Chinatown, where we found a suitable restaurant. I tried desperately to think of something to say. We had to have something in common, we were about the same age, did the same thing for a living, wrote novels, though his were of considerably higher quality than mine. But no, I couldn’t come up with a single topic of conversation.

“He talked a little, I listened, nodding politely now and then, said: ‘Oh, really? Is that so?’ while all the time I also had to communicate with the children, who weren’t used to strangers either.

“When we got back to Sweden, I received an email from him. He apologized for having invited me to lunch, he had realized he never should have done it and asked me not to reply to his email. …

“ ‘Who was it?’ Peter asked.

“I told him.

“ ‘It’s deeply un-American, you know, not to make small talk. It’s a very important part of the culture of this country. You remind me a little of my dad. He didn’t know how to make small talk, either, when he first got here. Or maybe he didn’t want to. But he does now.’ ” More.

As someone who helps out in ESL classes, I’m thinking it could be important to teach new Americans how to do this. Small things can connect people or push them away, and in this country, it seems that small talk is big.

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