Talk Small

It appears some people are incapable of small-talk. Every time you meet them there’s an impending global crisis or an inescapably penetrating idea that you have to know about. They’re less concerned with today’s temperature than how last week’s barometric pressure broke historic trends. When they unexpectedly run into a foreign friend in an elevator, they break the awkward silence with, “I just read this great article about your country’s wild GDP growth, did you see it?”

Of course, there are also people who are incapable of big-talk. These guys tell dirty jokes at lunch when they’re 35 and somehow always know the 10-day forecast. They watch Fox News because they like using missing dogs, local heroes, and teen fashion trends as conversational fodder. They spend an entire Thanksgiving dinner talking about football and basketball and baseball players. They love barbershops.

Neither extreme is pretty. But I’ve noticed that it’s almost always better to err on the small side. In my experience, people prefer going through the motions with an incessant small-talker than slogging through deep conversations with an incessant big-talker. It’s a lot less work.

Which brings us to charm.

Charm is just making big-talk feel like small-talk. It’s sounding smart without lording your intelligence over someone. It’s slipping big ideas into a friendly chat and turning your incisive commentary into a cute quip. It’s leveraging the lowest common denominator without getting stuck there, and getting people to listen by making it easy to listen.

Thus the elements of small-talk - jokes, stories, examples, simple language, etc. - are the key components of charm. And the point is, charm works. It’s the secret sauce of good writers, speakers, and salesmen, the best way of explaining something meaningful without scaring the crap out of everyone.

So when in doubt, talk small.

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Comments

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Mike Feb 28th, 2007 at 1:16 pm

While I think some of this rings true. I do think that a little more analysis is due. Small talk doesn’t ever become overbearing like big talk can. However, it often times can become very contrite and meaningless. So many conversations with lesser acquaintances often end after a few one liners, and if no one steps up to bat then either one person gets off the elevator or uncomfortable silence ensues. So to tell you the truth I’m not sure if I would err on the side of small talk. You’ll just have to convince me further. Since right now I think that I would rather have someone explain something interesting (maybe from digg) than someone telling me its “F’n cold outside” and waiting for me to confirm his obvious remark, because yes it is cold outside.

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Robin Hanson Apr 27th, 2007 at 5:34 am

You don’t realize how lucky you are to be around all those smart people who want to big talk. You’ll eventually find how rare they are in the wider world.

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Katja Oct 21st, 2007 at 12:20 pm

You only live once, where’s the fun in spending years of it repeating meaningless phrases at anyone who comes near you? It’s embarrassing to look someone in the eye and say ‘nice weather, isn’t it?’, when you both know how cliched and vacuous the question is. It would be better if there was some way you could appreciate a person’s company without the obligation to move your mouth throughout.
The point about charm is good. The problems with big talk are that it doesn’t allow people to talk about themselves as easily, and may include things they don’t understand - if you can escape these it’s much more sellable.
Robin also has a good point.

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