Musings on Small Talk

This is a dense post with some shower thoughts on human communication. The brevity is by design. I offer this as a gift for you to enjoy and unpack.

Human capacity for speech is arguably one of the key traits that defines the divide between animal and person. This extraordinary mechanism enables one individual to form a thought, encode it and transmit it using acoustic waves into the mind of another being. Think about it for a second - how incredible is this?

There are multiple levels of translation happening, and it's a true miracle that communication is as accurate as it is. Thoughts are abstract in the mind, with no words tied to them. A person has to take those thoughts, observe them in order to collapse the probability space into a single intent, and then decide how to best encode that intent into words. This is the first potential failure point that might make the communication muddy. They must then emit those words in a clear manner to the recipient, which is a second point of failure. Imagine a static phone line, and remember how much trouble that can cause. Finally, the conversational partner must take those sounds and encode them back to concepts that the brain can comprehend. This provides yet another opportunity for misunderstanding, arguably the most frequent one.

Given this incredibly complex protocol, a new perspective emerges on "small talk". Many people profess a deep hate of small talk, viewing it as a meaningless waste of time, posturing, or vapidness. When taking into account the considerations presented above, arguably a new picture can be seen.

Small talk itself is meaningless, but rather than disregarding it outright, one has to look at the fundamental change it effects. The content of the conversation is immaterial, but the initial time taken for it can be viewed as a negotiation protocol on communication. The two parties express their mutual interest - or lack thereof. There is a convergence on linguistic cadence, vocabulary choice, and a mirroring of body posture. Once the foundation is in place and the two parties feel a resonance, the future conversation has a deeper impact because the thoughts can more easily be transmitted from one mind to another. If the people dive straight into a complex topic, it's possible that the extra energy required to form this synchronicity during the topic of importance will take way resouces available for the actual comprehension of the topic.