Friday, July 29, 2005


Small Talk

The shy and socially inept know exactly what Sartre meant when he said, "L'enfer, c'est les autres." To me, hell is other people, especially at parties and other social gatherings, where I usually retreat to a corner, feign absorption in the pictures on a wall or the books in a bookcase, and secretly marvel at the ease and fluency with which everyone else is chatting. Small talk is a skill I never mastered.

Rousseau suffered from the same affliction. Here are some passages from his Confessions (tr. J.M. Cohen) in which he bemoans society's appetite for small talk and his own incapacity for it:
She [Madame de Warens] is the only person with whom I never suffered from that inability to find words that makes the maintenance of conversation such a penance to me. (Book III)

I can make excellent replies impromptu, if I have a moment to think, but on the spur of the moment I can never say or do anything right. I could conduct a most delightful conversation by post, as they say the Spaniards play chess. (Book III)

In private conversation, there is another difficulty, which I consider worse, the necessity of always talking. You have to reply each time you are spoken to, and if the conversation fails, to set it going again. This unbearable constraint would be enough in itself to disgust me with society. I can think of no greater torture than to be obliged to talk continually and without a moment for reflection. I do not know whether this is just an aspect of my mortal aversion to any sort of compulsion, but I have only to be absolutely required to speak and I infallibly say something stupid. (Book III)

Lack of occupation is, in my opinion, as much a scourge of society as solitude. Nothing so narrows the mind, nothing engenders more nonsense - tales and mischief, gossiping and lies - than for people to be eternally confined in one another's company, in one room, reduced, for lack of anything to do, to the necessity of incessant chatter. When everyone is busy, no one speaks unless he has something to say. But when one is doing nothing it is imperative to talk all the time; and that is the most wearisome and dangerous of all forms of constraint. (Book V)

I have never been able to endure the silly nonsense with which ordinary conversation is padded out; but useful and serious talk has always given me pleasure. (Book VI)

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