Tiny words: on the art of small talk

Ellie Duncan ruminates on the place of everyday interaction in literary writing

Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve ever found yourself writing an entire speech in your head before calling up to book a doctor’s appointment, or had to shoot off a quick text that actually just spent five minutes languishing in the Notes section of your phone, it’s unlikely you’re very good at small talk.

Freshers’ Week may be a struggle. What finally makes all those moments of awkwardness worth is the occasion of your first DMC with that potential best friend. All of a sudden, familiarity replaces the strain of discussing the hall menu. Speaking becomes easier again—particularly for those who might wish they had a minute to preemptively jot down a few thoughts with which to keep a dying conversation going.

Indeed, the realm of the written is often presented as an escape from a world where language feels false or disingenuous: think Matilda, the young Jane Eyre, Lisa Simpson. The concept of ‘normal’ conversation is often used in novels as a way of representing realistic interaction, and blurbs and reviews may tell us that a work manages also to illuminate ‘truths’ about those relationships that might be disguised in everyday life. In literature, the mysteries of small talk can be reimagined in ways that somehow point prophetically to deeper truths about human isolation and distance. In Adam Bede, George Eliot eloquently puts it this way: “examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings.” Victorian realist novels such as this one are often associated with a preoccupation with everyday language, and the idea that all the possible ways in which individuals communicate must be presented in order to fully grasp the human mind.

And yet, as is often the case with lengthy Victorian novels, Adam Bede is peppered with scenes of minute behavioural detail, as well as sections of highly dramatic dialogue. Eliot chucked them in for the sake of ‘truthfulness’, yet they seem to suggest one thing about everyday conversation: it’s dull. Perhaps unintentionally, this impression is made stronger by the sharp contrasts between these scenes and the more dramatic, intentionally ‘emotional’ scenarios.

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Perhaps I’m an impatient reader, and missing the point too. This is a method of realism that gradually builds up a complex network of relationships, that do achieve poignant depictions of the perils of daily interaction and conversation. But put as just incidental detail, there’s little sense of being able to really understand a character’s psychology. A wholly different concept of presenting everyday interaction is demonstrated by Alice Kuipers’ Life on the Refrigerator Door. Reading this novel, the strongest impression left is one of honesty. Here you have an entire book in the form of notes stuck to the fridge door, tracing the correspondence between fifteen-year-old Claire and her workaholic mother. It reads like one continuous conversation, constantly punctuated by afterthought : ‘Could you leave an extra 20 dollars with my allowance? Pleeeeeeaaaaaase?’ The kind of small talk that develops not between occasional acquaintances, but within the closest kinds of relationships.

It may not be the most complex or ‘literary’ of novels, yet it captures in written form an instantly recognisable way of speaking. Clearly its modern context makes it more recognisable, but through this simple refashioning of the form of everyday speech Kuipers acutely foregrounds the way in which we use routine language to leave the more important things unsaid.

Maybe the inner romantic in me does still want an element of clear fictionality in the presentation of everyday speech. Sometimes the idea of conflating emotional truth with actual spoken words seems to swing too far towards the extreme: ‘you are the answer to every prayer I’ve offered. You are a song, a dream, a whisper, and I don’t know how I could have lived without you for as long as I have.’ Thanks Nicholas Sparks, I’ll make sure to note that down. What I want, stubbornly and subjectively, is to read a way of speaking that sits halfway between my idea of everyday interaction and total fictionality. Enter Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Darcy’s struggle with his small-talking world makes him a completely relatable, socially awkward character (status as an aristocratic man in the 1700s aside). Sadly though, even Pride and Prejudice contains moments of such perfectly crafted dialogue that I think it would be impossible for me to carry it off . For now, if I want to learn anything about the words around me, there’s always The Fine Art of Small Talk, available on Kindle from £6.99.