Small talk and big ideas

Eleanor Roosevelt (third left) discusses big ideas with George VI of England (centre), Queen Elizabeth (second right) and others in London in 1942. Photo: Getty Images
Eleanor Roosevelt (third left) discusses big ideas with George VI of England (centre), Queen Elizabeth (second right) and others in London in 1942. Photo: Getty Images

How are you doing? Lovely day. Can you believe how warm it is for September?

Liz Breslin.
Liz Breslin.

And did you know that, according to Eleanor Roosevelt, the hierarchy of intelligent conversation goes something like this: "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people". It doesn’t really fit with the catchy nature of the phrasing, but it might be apposite to add: Everyone talks about the weather.

I was taught as a child that small talk is polite. Shake hands, do your how dos and ask about something you have in common. (Hence our obsession with weather-related small talk, perhaps, since despite our widening human chasms, we still live under the same sky.) I learnt, as a young educational tour guide of American students around European cities, that it is inappropriate to discuss politics, sex or religion. Though how you’re supposed to tell stories about European history within those constraints is well beyond me. As an adult, I’ve been advised to grab a drink and chill out and shush my fancy words.

I hate small talk. Pretending. Conversing with padding and paving, dancing around anything interesting or important. And why? In case we offend? If we construct our own realities about the world through what we tell ourselves, best make sure we’re ready to strengthen, define and defend our viewpoints. Better then to sharpen up debate and diplomacy than dumb down conversation to a beige lull of banality.

The defacing of billboards is possibly symptomatic of latent anger and obvious political...
The defacing of billboards is possibly symptomatic of latent anger and obvious political disengagement. Photo: Gerard O'Brien.

Heather Bauchop wrote earlier this week in an article on corpus.nz, the University of Otago’s "conversations about medicine and life" blog,  about the phenomenon that is cultural nominal aphasia. How we lose language that we don’t use. And how, in losing access to words, we lose it to worlds. Losing access to ideas means we become less literately able to discuss and hold forth. Which is a vital skill, in these days, or any. Or else we can drown in our own mire of personality politics and he that tweets bigliest wins.

In the lead-up to our own general election, I’m astounded at how much of the talk is about the people involved and how much the political is made personal, in the inverse way of the original use of that phrase. Discussing Bill doing the Macarena on the Young Nats tour bus or how well Jacinda wraps "fush’n’chups", as an allegory for their positioning and policies — that’s a "great minds" stance. Discussing the same as a thing in its own right — distinctly average.  Are you voting for the person or for the policies they stand for?

I’m shocked at how many of the political billboards around Wanaka have been attacked and defaced. I wonder if, as a society, we will ever grow tired of inscribing penises with sparsely hairy balls on people’s shiny cardboard foreheads? (This is the sort of question I like asking in the first couple of minutes of conversation with new people. The very sort of question my parents and my tour-guide-teachers warned me against.)

Thinking about this with the "great mind" approach: the defacing of billboards is possibly symptomatic of latent anger and obvious political disengagement. Of the impotence we feel at not being able to properly engage, debate, listen to more than soundbites, disengage from the algorithms that run our lives, feel like we’re being properly heard. This could have potentially spiralling, wide-ranging effects, as cause or symptom of the dumbing down of everything around us, reflected in voter turnout of the young and the mallet owners and the permanent marker owners.

Thinking about it with a "small mind" approach: yeah, totally. That guy’s a dick. And hey ... isn’t it warm, for September?

 

Comments

When unsocialized children startled grown ups:

Blah blah and have you seen their blah blah..

> "I hate that Mekong!'

Er. I hate the Mekong too, young fella.

*Mekong: outer space villain in radio serial 'Dan Dare, Pilot of The Future'.

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