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Small Talk

by on November 2, 2014

                                                                  Small Talk

                                                           by Marco M. Pardi


Note: All comments are appreciated, read, and responded to accordingly.  The COMMENTS sections for all previous articles have been opened for use.  I will certainly look forward to your comments.  Comments that do not specifically address content will be trashed as SPAM.

“Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.” Robert Frost. (1875-1963)

I’m far better at small listening than I am at small talking.  Making the required rounds of the social circuit is like an endless prelude to a prostate exam; people circling to probe my inner being, never quite getting there.  All foreplay.

Rotating home dinner parties must, in my view, be held in homes with interesting cases of books, art in various media, and at least one pet – species irrelevant.  I’ll pass a pleasant evening with a Gila Monster.

Some time ago several neighborhood couples decided on a group trip to see a film and have dinner afterward.  The film was The Constant Gardener, based on the book of the same title by John LeCarre.  A meticulously in depth analysis of the pharmaceutical cartels and how they exploit Sub-Saharan African populations as guinea pigs for what they hope to be lucrative drugs,  it was filmed in East Africa and painfully depicted the chasm between utter poverty and powerlessness and the opulence of the exploiters.  It also, properly and accurately, portrayed the fate awaiting those who would dare expose the reality of drug testing and its toll on unsuspecting populations until the formula is either tweaked toward safety or quietly abandoned.  The scenes were courageous, and again left me wondering for LeCarre’s safety.

One might reasonably have expected some mention of the film as we afterward gathered for a meal at a nearby restaurant.  For more than an hour the talk went back and forth, breaking into women with women and men with men as it usually does.  Not a word about the film from either camp.  Not one.  I did pick up information on sports teams and new babies, or maybe it was sports babies and new teams.  I wondered whether I,  in a moment of thoughtfulness, got separated from my group and went to see the wrong film.  Seeing these neighbors separately over the next few days did I hear mention of the film?  Never. 

Just after the astounding breakthrough at the High Energy Collider at CERN I was at another dinner party.  Somewhere along the main course I said to those nearest me, “I’m quite excited about the confirmation of the Higgs boson and am really looking forward to the implications it will have for our understanding of dark matter and dark energy.”  Pause.  Response.  “Well, if it gets me better gas mileage in my pick up truck it’s fine with me.”  The dessert was good, but the Cocker Spaniel with whom I later discussed the Higgs implications was far more rewarding. 

Despite my years of trying to fit all the material into limited class time with start to finish lectures,  I listen more than I speak.  Speaking only repeats what I know.  But it was there I learned the difference between talking to someone and talking with someone.

In other capacities this realization was useful.  A Briefing Officer once described her session with me as “talking to a Black Hole.”  Another said, “It was like talking to the Buddha.”  I’m sure neither of them understood what I really heard from them but I accepted Black Hole and Buddha gratefully.

At a State Department reception for the new Ambassador from Outer Panglossia,  the Honorable Yurs Foraprice and wife,  Persuada,  I listened as our Ambassador, the Honorable Excess Gotrocks and wife, Harpy exchanged wisdom with them.  A political appointee, not a career diplomat, Ambassador Gotrock’s diplomatic portfolio was a gallery of countries and officials he had successfully bribed in “the American interest.” Plastics may have been the operant word for Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), but that was so last century.  Outsourcing was the new mana.  Labor laws, what labor laws?  Environmental impact?  Spell that, please?

Bogey at 12 o’clock, closing fast.  “And what is your function?”  “I’m an anthropologist.”  “I see. The weather here is delightful.”  More interested in the whether, I still manage to form the acceptable utterance.

Pardon me, but the house is on fire.  World population is squirting itself toward 8 billion, approximately half of existing species will likely be extinct in 25 years,  Nation-States are dissolving into Nation-Tribes,  water wars are already replacing oil wars,  the environment has likely passed the tipping point,  the vast bulk of antibiotics in this country are fed to livestock,  transmitted to us and excreted into the water supply mutating fish, diseases are mutating faster than we have antibiotic technology to match, Big Agro pesticides are killing off the plant pollinators, the U.S. Supreme Court is quickly moving toward the legitimization of Plutocracy (known in an earlier century as Fascism), and social gatherings across the land are humming about weight loss programs and which college football player will win a hideous sports trophy.

Okay. I hereby go on record as Not Getting It.  Is it in the water, the warming water the frogs are so foolishly enjoying?  I’m just no fun in social gatherings.  But, my membership is due to expire at some future point.  I will not consider renewal.

There is still time for me to navigate the discussions with my grandchildren,  threading through the growing up issues of school, friends, activities, and the crises we must also learn to face.  Small talk woven through with the not so small. My empathy goes out to Cassandra, a woman for whom small talk was an impossibility.

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  1. Ray Rivers permalink

    Marco – perhaps we’re just too polite to do what we have to do to try to make a difference. We’re too comfortable and too insecure about the options away from what we have been doing, which is exactly will do us in. And we believe too much in the institutions we hallow with the respect our teachers taught us to pour onto them. Sacred cows line the peaceful country lanes and crowd-out the path we ought to logically be following – but we are stuck in the mud of the one lane cattle path, unable to wedge ourselves out of the glue-like clay around our boots, our bodies and even our necks.

    Maybe too many of us listen too much and talk too little – and Frost was just being factious – and more people should listen to you.


  2. Thank you, Ray. I’ve watched and read as you yourself have spoken, only to be shunted aside by some. Again, your wisdom comes through and it is saddening that one day those same people may look back and say, “We should have listened.” Thanks again, Ray


  3. Gary permalink

    This is why people seek the company of other like-minded intellectual people, those with whom they can have an interesting conversation. There was a time people joined book clubs to read and digest and discuss interesting books. I don’t know if movie clubs exist. Now we can set up on-line discussion groups. I don’t recall you ever once mentioning the weather to me, Marco, not I to you. When you opt for a social occasion with the unsorted company of your neighbours, you get Pablum instead of pabulum..


  4. Thank you, Gary. Excellent points. I’ve wondered if the growth of suburbia has had a hand in spreading people so geographically distanced from one another that what was once an easy walk down the street or short drive away is now just too far to do. I’m sure there are many net based groups, and I’m deeply thankful for the one in which we participate.

    Gosh, I’ve noticed that I’m “not expected” at the social gatherings I was once pressed to attend. Must be the weather. Marco


  5. diannejoydiamond permalink

    Marco, as I read the part about after-movie talk (or rather, non-talk) after “The Constant Gardener”,
    you kept saying no one brought up the movie. Well, what about you? You might have brought up the movie, but in such a way as to get an answer that engaged conversation as in “Was anyone upset about the practices exposed in the movie?” It might have been interesting to see if you could have been the one to ignite a meaningful conversation. But maybe not. In the next example, I can’t imagine what I would have said upon hearing “I’m quite excited about the confirmation of the Higgs boson and am really looking forward to the implications it will have for our understanding of dark matter and dark energy.” You know I am intelligent, but I don’t follow all areas and I know nothing about Higgs boson (never heard the term before now). That was almost a set-up on your part, knowing your suburban neighbors as you probably did.

    The rest of your blog is another matter. I do understand how there are so many issues that seem to be given no thought, by so many. The people I know in my small town discuss these issues all the time. So I think Gary is right; there is plenty to talk about, learn from, listen to if you choose those who share your interests, concerns, and at least some of that amazing intelligence of yours. But sometimes I think you relish being that stranger in a strange land.


    • Thank you, Dianne. I do admit to enjoying being the Stranger. I’m more inclined to finding out about others and how they think than projecting my views outward. And, I’ve found that my projected views often die quietly and quickly in general social settings. Hence, I viewed that post film dinner as an opportunity to observe.

      You and Gary are certainly correct that groups of thinkers can be found. My years in a small college town were enjoyable in that regard. For several years in the Atlanta area I facilitated an Atlanta metro group that was at times quite vibrant. However, with distance and horrible traffic it eventually dissolved.

      I also get uncomfortable with the feeling that such groups only assemble the choir, and we wind up singing the same hymns repeatedly. Teaching was an antidote to that, but my health uncertainties caused me to make the ethical decision that I should discontinue that activity. I still do guest lectures, and have two coming up. Still, I miss the small college town atmosphere and I imagine your setting as something I would find very attractive.


  6. Ironically, while you were busy posting this, my husband and I were attending a party. The music was not quite too loud to enjoy, but just loud enough to preclude any sort of real conversation. We spent most of the time seated against a wall while the other guests indulged in inebriated frivolity. The worst of it is the time wasted which I will never get back again. Rose


    • Thank you, Rose. I can really relate to that. I have never understood how people socialize in settings where they have to scream at each other to be understood – or maybe I’m missing the point. The VA classifies my hearing loss as “Infantry Man’s Ear”, though I was never in the infantry – just lots of gunfire and explosives. I just will not go anywhere that has loud “music” playing, partly because the stuff that is played the loudest is the stuff that least qualifies as music.


  7. I have hated social gatherings for the same reasons since I was a teenager !! lol !!
    Was never one for groups, although I always appreciated the company and friendship of some close on-the-same-page friends …especially if four-legged (but not necessarily !).
    And now with Internet, lo and behold !, here I am, enjoying so much these group gatherings, like this one, where I feel so comfortable and understood 🙂

    To cap it all , amazingly (even to me!) , nowadays, I even find myself totally intrigued and at ease in some Facebook groups of people with similar interests , such as (you know me !!) dreams and Astral Projections!!
    But for me all this is so new !! so not `me` !!
    Who would have said that one day I would enjoy being in a group or two ….or three 😉
    Has the world changed or have I changed ?? …that is the question 😉
    PS I don`t think I have changed that much though lol…


  8. Thank you, FOAL and I’m so glad you are comfortable with this format. I guess we do change. I was 41 when I first touched a computer – scared I would break it. The only concern I have is avoiding situations that are too much like a gathering of the choir. On the other hand, there are some really nasty lurkers out there waiting for us to appear in their on-line chats.


  9. I too don’t enjoy social gathering and small chat, but mainly, I just don’t have the attention span. And it seems to be getting shorter. I would chalk it up to age but my kids are the same. We love this day and age of texts and emails. It gives us time to focus our thoughts. Some of the best conversations I have had though have been on a subway or elevator with complete strangers. But the best are those I have with my dogs where no words are spoken.


    • Thanks, Mary. I’m betting you, your kids, and others are seeing just how irrelevant so many things are. It seems that some people chatter just to keep the engine running, not to go anywhere. Funny how most people on elevators stare at the floor indicator, as if a big revelation is coming.

      Yes, silent company with dogs and horses. The best.


  10. Michael E. Stamm permalink

    Thoughtful as always. I avoid “cocktail parties” and variations thereon whenever possible (to my wife’s annoyance), and when I do have to attend I much prefer to listen and observe. Which sometimes puts people off; in my pre-marriage days a young woman once accused me, and that is the right word, of standing back and watching far too much for her peace of mind. (Which was a shame; she was a very attractive young woman.) My general mantra is that one seldom learns anything with his mouth open. And I observed to a woman friend that I was a bit uncomfortable with Facebook, which I finally joined for work-related reasons, because it felt like the world’s biggest cocktail party, even though by its nature those you find yourself surrounded by are usually quite congenial.

    People mostly hear what they want to hear, and really don’t hear anything else…and if you somehow make them listen, they can become dangerous. Makes you wonder if Peggy Lee was right: “If that’s all there is, my friend/then let’s keep dancing, let’s bring out the booze/and have/a ball…if that’s all/there is…”


    • Thank you, Mike. Reading your comment had me envisioning sharing an evening with you at one of these gatherings, perhaps comparing notes afterward. I totally agree with your assessment of what people hear and I think we can safely extend that to what they see and read (if they do). Marco


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