Plenty of small talk sucks. It may be bad if, as novelist Karan Mahajan wrote recently for The New Yorker, you come from a culture with no norm of small talk and you have to learn the art of idle banter. Small talk is also bad when both parties have other places to be and are just going through the motions of speaking. Small talk might be worst when you find yourself catching up with an old friend and find yourself inexplicably stuck in the shallow end of the pool, though you know them well enough to wade out into the real talk.
But engaging in small talk when you have no expectation of deep connection, when you’re waiting for a sandwich or sitting in the barber’s chair and have time that needs to be passed somehow? That’s the good stuff. Sports are the ultimate fodder for this, since they epitomize regional, shared culture, and everyone who pays attention to them has some shit to shoot. This joy doubles if you share a bad team with a rich history of being bad. (Everyone who ever cuts my hair is eager to bemoan the Knicks and hail Porzingis as a Messiah and chuckle it up; just ease up on the Melo jokes when his razor is grazing your carotid artery.)
Small talk lets you hear perspectives you may not come into contact with otherwise; it can let you escape the circling drain of your own dull thoughts; it lets you practice patience and care to those sometimes annoying strangers who just need someone to talk to. There’s even some evidence that it makes you less miserable. But most importantly, small talk—especially in regular daily transactions—is how we acknowledge fellow human beings as something more than fleshy androids who facilitate the exchange of capital for goods and services.
When you forget that—that you’re dealing with humans, whose own days can be ruined—you open yourself up to casual cruelty, to pathetic hissy fits, to lashing out at people who, in most cases, played no role in the chain of events that culminated in whatever error you’re wailing about. Living in a world of constant self-surveillance has the benefit of exposing all kinds of inhumanity, some of which is tragic and senseless and brutal, and some of which is relatively trivial but also hilarious and bad:
You don’t want to be memorialized like that, with that final stroller slap and soulless death stare. Just breathe deeply, remember that it’s a person in front of you, and if you need to speak, try a calm chat about the chocolate milkshake you just grabbed next door.