SMALL TALK AND LARGE

 

They’ve been out on a date, he invites her up for a nightcap, she accedes, he makes a pass, and she cries sexual assault. Wouldn’t it be so much easier for all concerned, for the two of them and for the courts, if instead of, “Would you like to come up for a nightcap?” he’d said, “Would you like to come up for some tentative foreplay, and then we can see where it goes from there?”? None of this means that if she accedes she’s agreeing to go wherever he wants it to go. Nor does it mean he’s agreed to its going wherever she wants it to go. Maybe he has bad breath. Maybe she does. All it establishes, because all it needs to establish, is that there was consent to some tentative foreplay.

But sex is not what this entry is about. It’s about dinner invitations.

Suppose we invite you to dinner because, well, you had us over a couple of months ago and, well, you know. Maybe you’re a neighbor, maybe you’re a colleague. All that matters is that the invitation is in some sense socially mandated.

Well no, not all that matters. What also matters is that a dinner party involves eating, yes, but also conversation.

Now then, the fact, supposing it is a fact, that you’re an excruciatingly boring conversationalist is entirely beside the point. We all have to endure things we’d rather not, but we endure them anyhow for the sake of getting along, whether in the neighborhood or in the workplace.

But now suppose not that you’re boring, nor that you’re scintillating, but rather that, were the conversation to be given free rein, it’s guaranteed to turn rancorous. Or if not, only because I’d have to bite down so hard on my tongue that you’d be the only one able to eat.

The fact, supposing it is a fact, that I might be the idiot with respect to the issue on the table, is also beside the point. Clearly at least one of us is an idiot. But the conversation wouldn’t have turned rancorous unless we each thought it was the other.

Still, the bottom line is that, rancor being counter-conducive to the purposes for which we typically invite each other to dinner, it must be avoided at all costs. Well no, not at all costs. The cost cannot include our not inviting you in the first place, since we’ve already determined that that would be churlish. And churlishness, in the context of neighborliness or collegiality, is as bad as, if not worse than, rancor.

So the obvious solution is to not give the conversation free rein. To confine the conversation to what we uncharitably but rightly call small talk.

Now small talk, for all its smallness, is nothing to be disparaged. It’s the continuation of the social lubrication after we’ve exhausted the equally vacuous greeting rituals performed at the door. But here’s the rub:

Suppose you’ve yet to be apprized that the invitation was for dinner and small talk. Suppose you thought it was for dinner and large talk. That is, for dinner and wherever the conversation might lead. You say something large but stupid, I bite down on my tongue, and there’s this excruciating awkward silence, excruciating and awkward for both of us. Wouldn’t it be easier for all concerned, for you, for me, and for anyone else at the table, if I could have just said, “Hey, how ‘bout my place Saturday night for dinner and some small talk?” Then you’re on notice, and you can either accept the invitation and comport yourself accordingly, or beg off because of some faux prior engagement.

The problem is we haven’t developed a protocol for distinguishing the two kinds of dinner invitations. And the reason for this, I think, is that an explicit invitation to small talk announces to one’s world-be guest that we don’t think she’s capable of anything more. Of that anything larger she might have to say would have me biting down on my tongue so hard I couldn’t eat.

So what have courteous dinner guests learn to do instead? They’ve learned to test the waters. And we’ve learned how to counter-signal, with either a don’t-go-there or, if we’re so inclined, a yes-let’s. Puppies can learn hand signals for sit, stand, down and stay, by the time they’re two months old. Why can’t some adult humans learn these same basic social cues?

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