How pleasantries became unpleasant

Or, why the pandemic killed small talk

COVID-19 did what Larry David couldn’t: It killed small talk.

David’s strategy to cut the chit chat was illustrated in season eight of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which he forced the poor guy sitting next to him at a dinner party to shut up about cursive handwriting and reflect upon the sad state of his marriage. His plan was to skip the small talk and go right to medium talk.

But you can’t fight small talk with medium talk. You kill it, as we now know, with Big Talk. 

Much of what we say to one another is both meaningless and important. That’s because our speech is filled with phatics, social cues that carry little or no information. (Or as explained in this video, phrases that have pragmatic but not semantic meaning.) As Gretchen McCulloch discusses in this enjoyable episode of her Lingthusiasm podcast, phatics grease the wheels of language, allowing us to put one another at ease so that a conversation can ensue. No phatics, no ease.

To borrow Lingthusiam’s metaphor, it’s the disruption of a social dance. Even if you weren’t very good at small talk, you were most likely good enough. As co-host Lauren Gawne notes: “As long as you move some limb on every beat of the macarena, you can pretend to be keeping up.” But when you do something else entirely, the hosts explain, it’s like breaking into the funky chicken in the middle of a square dance. 

And so COVID has destroyed small talk by making innocuous questions nocuous. How’s it going? What’s new? How are things? What’s up?

We all have real answers to these questions now, and when they’re asked it’s hard not to say what’s on your mind. The unseen handshake of small talk doesn’t happen, and we jump right into the Big Talk. So as things continue to be unsettled for so many, even the unspoken rules of conversation have shifted. It’s as if someone lowered the first step in your staircase by half an inch.

It’s summed up in this New Yorker cartoon on The New Stock Phrases, in which

  • How are you?” becomes “How are you holding up?”,

  • Fine, thanks” is now “Hanging in there”, and

  • “Bye” is upgraded to “Stay safe.”

Not funny, but true enough.

The problem is that these new phrases have meaning, so they aren’t quite phatics. If you really want to know if your community has the virus under control, wait to hear the words “Fine, thanks.” They’re the verbal equivalent of R<1.

To guard against false positives — phatics are, after all, things we say without thinking — try the test McCulloch developed as a linguistics joke in high school. When friends would ask “What’s up?”, she’d respond with “Good, how are you?” When they said “How’s it going?” she’d say “Not much, what’s up with you?” Both make no semantic sense but perfect pragmatic sense, and if no beats are missed, it’s phatically fantastic. 

“Whenever people talk to me about the weather,” Gwendolen complains in The Importance of Being Earnest, “I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.”

In fact, when we make small talk, we mean nothing. And when we can talk about nothing again, we can finally talk about something else.


Quick quips; lightning

We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those whom we bore.”
— François de la Rochefoucauld  

“There are two things in ordinary conversation which ordinary people dislike — information and wit.”
— Stephen Leacock

“My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence.”
— Edith Sitwell


That’s GWQ No. 56. Not much, you? Weather, huh? Also, sports? If it’s before Wednesday, we ask about last weekend. If it’s Wednesday or after, we ask about plans for the coming weekend. Me? Oh, I’m hoping to mention my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. Well, I should let you go! Take care! Tap the ♥️ below. Bye!