Thursday, July 31, 2008

talk the talk

My homeboy Fabio Rojas articulates a theory concerning the value small talk:

  1. Verbal competence: Small talk shows that you are minimally able to carry out a conversation. If you can’t wing the weather, what else can’t you talk about?
  2. Community membership: If you talk orgtheory, then you’re definitely part of the “in” crowd.
  3. Ability signal: Witty small talk shows intelligence.
  4. Information: Sometimes your partner really doesn’t know what the weather is like. They really appreciate hearing about it from you.
  5. Social construction of reality: Small talk and gossip help people define what is real for that group.
  6. Status signals: Choice of topic in small talk can be used to assert and manage status.
  7. Friendship ritual: Small talk is a precursor to stronger relationships.
  8. Hidden Identity Game: You can use small talk to drop subtle hints about your hidden identity.
  9. Institutional maintanence: If you small talk with others at work, you signal acceptance of the order of your firm.
  10. Normative Experiment: Use small talk to test out ideas at low cost.

I agree with all of the above. And I much prefer Fabio's take to William Deresiewicz's, which while true is so insufferably stated:

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

The first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it. Witness the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate.

But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college. (If I’d gone to Harvard, I would have learned to say “in Boston” when I was asked where I went to school—the Cambridge version of noblesse oblige.) I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.

I'm glad that Deresiewicz regrets his elite education for making him (apparently he had no choice in the matter!) unable to talk to the masses or be down with the gente, but eeesh, Fabio's theory is so much more elegant, economical, and better theorized. Also, less insufferably narcissistic and scapegoating.