From small talk to lewd shock

In the toilet stalls, a bird-like, sanguine female voice tumbles out, “Oh yea, looks like it’s going to snow REAL bad tonight. Wasn’t yesterday just WONDERFUL?” My bowel movement stops and my abdomen clenches in annoyance. I’ve always abhorred small talkers – those who can spew the most heart-wrenchingly insignificant details without rehearsal, regardless of time and place. I’m not talking about small conversations initiated for the sake of getting to know someone, but the meaningless kind that is devoid of any genuine interest.

The campus is bombarded with folks talented at the latter. Just give them one word and watch them spin. Coffee. “Oh yea? Sweet! I’m SUCH a coffee lover. My stepfather’s mother ALWAYS keeps these two jars of Maxwell House coffee in her cabinet for me whenever I go to visit. Isn’t it just wonderful?” And so it begins. I almost faint at the climax. “Yup, Maxwell House coffee. Can’t go wrong with that!”

This kind of small talk pervades every corner of campus life. I once heard on a Minnesota Public Radio program that there are several categories of small talk, including bathroom small talk, cafeteria-line small talk, elevator small talk and workplace small talk. I, however, think it is more appropriate to establish only two subgroups based on style and diction: college female small talk and college male small talk.

I generally find the female small talk intolerable because of its tone. The vocabulary is confined to adjectives such as “wonderful, excellent, good,” and is accompanied by a melange of gushing and gurgling found nowhere in Webster’s. Syntax is even skimpier; almost all greeting is some variation of “Hi, how are YOU? GOOD!” or “How was your DAY? Oh NO!”

Fortunately, the college male version is less energy-consuming and more finite. In this case, vocabulary is all but absent. Usually, a few syllables are indiscriminately thrown in between an eclectic variation of grunts, “Hey Ö yea Ö man Ö no Ö sweet Ö wasted Ö got laid.”

Because communication skills are indispensable for first impressions, many argue small talk is a necessary first step to acquaintance, network and cultivate friendships. While there is truth to that, there is a growing danger of small talk deteriorating to customary remarks of little substance. Therefore, I’m not advocating for the complete abolition of small talk but for an upgraded quality of small-scale conversation.

To begin with, find an interesting starter. If you don’t care about whether someone’s drinking black coffee or tea, don’t ask. Instead, ask them whether they go to Starbucks often and what they find attractive about a coffee shop. Or if you’re feeling philosophical, ask, “Have you ever wondered why Americans are becoming more and more addicted to coffee? Why do we drink coffee instead of taking a siesta?” If you find that too pretentious, spill something quirky about yourself. “I once chewed on a whole bag of coffee beans after my girlfriend dumped me.” Either way you’re sharing an interesting tidbit with someone else. Why ask about coffee when you can ask about past relationships? Ask questions that allow a unique answer.

For the females, ditch the exaggeration that reeks of pretense. Most of us are not empathetic, caring souls at all times, especially not with a mere acquaintance. Instead of a emitting a dragging groan and sagging face when someone declares a bad day in the elevator, ask something genuine. “Who pissed you off? Feel free to rant.” Of course, students are so bombarded with their to-do lists that they are often unable to enjoy chatting with others leisurely. This is probably one cause of small-talk deterioration.

As we begin a new school year, we can resolve to alter this trend by cutting beyond the chitchat. If you’re going to shoot bull, make it entertaining bull. In the wise words of the lady on Minnesota Public Radio, “If all else fails, you can always fall back to, ‘How many virgins have you slept with?’ “

Diana Fu is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. She welcomes comments at [email protected]