The Big Picture on Small Talk

party

In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at UCLA, I took a screenwriting class. I was too immature for the course but also too immature to recognize that. The instructor was Richard Walter, screenwriting faculty chairman and “the screenwriter’s guru.” The text was Aristotle’s Poetics, literally a classic, which emphasizes the unity of time, place, and action in successful drama. Had the course occurred the following year, the required reading would likely have been Walter’s own newly published manual, Screenwriting: The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing. I remember this book, which I purchased voluntarily, as helpful and humorous, with vivid illustrations—some of which I still recall over two dozen years later.

In a section about chitchat, Walter advises that scripts not include the kind of “prattle” that pervades our daily interactions: “Hi, how are you?—Fine, thanks. Yourself?—Not bad, thanks.—The family?—Just great, though the baby has a rash. You?” Also called “small talk,” this cordial conversation about trivial matters is used especially in social situations, such as at parties, around the office, in line at the grocery store, waiting for a bus, etc. In a movie or television show, such “trifling talk” neither advances the plot nor enhances character. Walter cites a screenplay, written by a student, that contained 20 pages’ worth of such pleasantries. The writer ultimately decided to substitute more exciting language. Compare:

Before

TOM: Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE: Hi, Tom.

After

TOM: Sexy dress!

DEBBIE: Like it?

TOM: Love it!

naked dressRereading this example the other day made me think of a scene from an early episode of Sex and the City, in which Carrie wears a short, slinky, nude-toned dress (which Charlotte dubs “the naked dress”) on her first official date with Big. As she approaches his car, he addresses her:

BIG: Interesting dress.

CARRIE: Meaning?

BIG: Interesting dress.

The exchange hints at the characters’ powerful physical attraction, to which they succumb moments later (and again, on and off, throughout the show’s run). A more small talk-y, less effective greeting might have been as follows:

BIG: Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE: Hi . . . well, we call you Mr. Big.

As an introvert, I question whether small talk is best avoided in real life, as well. (I have never been shy about my introversion.) Articles on the qualities of the introverted temperament consistently mention a dislike for small talk. But why do introverts shun chitchat? Here are some possible explanations, which I can personally validate:

  1. Introverts enjoy deep conversations, about ideas and theories.
  2. Introverts like to think before they speak.
  3. Introverts don’t talk unless they have something to say.
  4. Introverts are active listeners.
  5. Introverts are exhausted by small talk, because interaction drains their energy.

While engaging in light dialogue can be stressful and tiring for those of us who are introverted, this type of communication is inescapable. Therefore, fellow introverts, I encourage you to keep the benefits of small talk in mind the next time you find yourself on an airplane next to a stranger, at a networking event, or in the barber’s chair:

  1. Small talk provides an opportunity to connect.
  2. Small talk conveys interest, people like when you take an interest in them, and so they will like you.
  3. Small talk can lead to big things, such as relationships and business deals.
  4. Small talk puts you in the present moment.
  5. Small talk improves your problem-solving abilities.

In other words, small talk might advance the plot and enhance character after all.

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