By Christos Kalli
Since 1650, when ‘small talk’ first appeared as a neologism in John Trapp’s theological book on proverbs Solomonis panaretos, it has proven to be a particularly apt name to describe its function in conversation and its characteristics.
Small bites of language that are easy to swallow (Such a lovely day today!), insignificant subjects (the weather, the news, Britney’s new single), minimal linguistic or intellectual dexterity necessary, almost zero emotional investment (‘Womanizer’ was so much better), and minimum effort to respond or reciprocate.
Though a dialogue can begin and end with small talk alone—the infamous Hi-Bye situation—its distinctive smallness often presents a passageway into more intellectual and emotionally deep conversation.
‘A little small talk before getting down to business,’ writes the UC Berkeley English Professor and critic Dora Zhang, ‘is like washing your hands in preparation for a meal.
But it can also be a filler that ends up consuming the entire conversation, an endless ritual of hand-washing in which no one actually gets to eat.’
In Cyprus, we encounter a different breed of small talk, a breed that thrives in the island’s socio-cultural wilderness without being, perhaps, exclusive to it.
This species of small talk is like jumping right to the main course (which we often do as Cypriots).
That is, in Cyprus, one’s marital situation, financial footing, personal ambitions, and preferences of all kinds are just as likely subjects to initiate or reinitiate a conversation as the weather, the film that everyone is currently talking about, and the football results.
They frequently break the ice during the “social events” that are prevalent on the island: the family gatherings, the post-church meetings, the weddings, the coffee shop get-togethers.
By definition, a conversation that includes these topics does not qualify as small talk.
So, how is it possible that it is?
First, the size and population of the island allow and sometimes imposes, a highly networked living experience.
In this arena, it is conceivable that “big talk” has become so frequent between a relatively small group of people that it occasionally mutates into small talk between a bigger group of people.
Second, the rules of a conversation (its initiation, topics, duration) are not established only by the interlocutors and the nature of their relationship.
As linguists would tell you, there are all types of licenses involved even in the most minute interactions—licenses that are constructed socially, culturally, and politically.
If then, asking someone’s salary has become as acceptable as asking where they work, does it mean that we have thrown the social and cultural contracts of small talk away in Cyprus? Does it mean that we have been released in a buffet to gorge on as much as possible?
But it is not all bad, correct?
Skipping the chit-chat and taking the dialogue straight to the depths that our Greek philosopher ancestors would approve—or to steal Zhang’s analogy, skipping the hand-washing and jumping head-first to the pièce de résistance—might seem to some like an utterly profound gesture, refusing the superficiality of traditional small talk and showing an interest in the “real” issues at hand.
For others, the writer of this piece among them, this kind of jump or jump-start is a rude invasion of privacy, an unhealthy inquiry about the information that should not appear at any point of the conversation, let alone the very beginning, let alone with a near-stranger.
It is toxic because it is often saturated with assumptions and implications that, in the absence of an authentic connection, maybe blissfully hurtful.
The question ‘When are they going to get married?’, for instance, is high in curiosity even when it is well-intentioned, but it, more importantly, implies that marriage is the ultimate goal and the only way to legitimize the relationship.
More troubling is the fact that this species of small talk is not often concerned with the people that are present in the room.
This small talk is ambitious enough, and loud enough, to reach whoever is not there to respond for themselves, to turn its invasiveness the other way around or dodge it—the son who skipped the dinner, the neighbour, the sick mother, the friend who is studying abroad. And here, we are forced to ask the big questions: how often is this ambition motivated by not only curiosity but by (primal) competition?
How often does it feel aggressive when it should have been soothing?
How often does it arrive in retaliation for something?
Cultural idiosyncrasies relating to language exist: each culture has its definitions, modes of reception, and methods of practising small talk.
That a different species of small talk exists in Cyprus is not shocking. At all.
What’s shocking is that one of the species of small talk that exists in Cyprus is big, loud, and toxic, and we may be feeding it.
It is also true that personal idiosyncrasies relating to language exist as well.
With these, one can refuse the cultural paradigm of small talk, engage in one’s own unique small talk, choose to adopt someone else’s viewpoint on small talk (for instance, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s, who famously detests chattering), or not participate in it at all, as many people here sure do.
If the Cypriot counterpart of small talk feels as though someone is trying to eat off your plate, you can start by moving to a different restaurant.
Christos Kalli is an Associate Lecturer at UCLan Cyprus, an independent researcher, and a University of Cambridge graduate