During airplane travel, not only do I fail in limiting my consumption of bags of airplane peanuts, I’ve also never quite mastered the art of how to successfully avoid long conversations with talkative strangers sitting next to me on the plane. Sometimes these conversations can be forced and awkward, but other times, I must admit, these conversations can be pleasant small task and surprisingly insightful.
The art of small talk is a skill I started to really notice at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There were numerous formal, organized intellectual presentations at the Forum. Former President Bill Clinton challenged world leaders, CEOs, faith leaders, and others gathered at Davos to think about how to maximize the effectiveness of the Forum. I found one of his most eye-opening ideas was his suggestion that the discourse of the formal presentations must also overflow into the halls. The opportunity to work through the great moral and societal problems of our time when such opportunities present themselves-as at Davos, with numerous world leaders and figures in one place- needs to be maximized to its potential. And even at such high-powered events as the World Economic Forum, there is plenty of vitally helpful small talk to be had. It is not only the official and formal events, but also the casual work of the hallways, the small talk between the formal talks, that can a long distance in influencing policy.
In Davos, and also at the White House Chanukah party earlier this month, I was fortunate to witness interactions between some of the greatest world leaders. I was amazed by the ability of President Obama, and many others, to connect so quickly with strangers through a certain style of small talk.
In these banquet halls, I was frequently reminded of the epic scene of the meeting of Yaakov and Pharaoh which is found in Genesis 47:7-10. With Yaakov—the great theologian—and Pharaoh—the great political leader of the time—one might wonder what these great world leaders of their time would discuss. Theology? World politics? The meaning of life? Fallout from the famine? Nope! Something much more mundane. Rather, “Vayomer Paroah el Yaakov, kama yamei shnei chayecha?” Pharaoh (in this great moment) asked Yaakov: “How old are you?” A question which seems much more fit for a chat between kids on a playground than between two figures of immense importance. Why begin such a charged conversation with such a small and insignificant question?
The Ketav V’Kabbalah (Rav Mecklenburg of 19th c. Germany) suggests that there are two ways we must speak. First, there are times when we use language to communicate specific ideas, wishes, hopes, prayers and teachings. Second, there are times that we use language simply to serve as the bridge that connects us to another; the substance and content of the conversation are secondary to the goal of connecting and relating.
Rav Mecklenburg refers to the nature of this dialogue between these two giants as “devarim shel mah b’kach”; this can loosely be translated as what we would call small talk. He is satisfied with the value and significance of ordinary social discourse and regular human interaction as a valid and legitimate form of conversation for Yaakov and Pharaoh to share. We don’t always have to look for great profundity and complexity in every conversation and every relationship. Yaakov and Pharaoh were simply making small talk, and that too is virtuous and valuable as a way to connect.
In general, Jewish law and values teach that we should limit our speech to points of moral and spiritual significance. Our significant relationships should not be based around conversations about the weather, the sports scores, or the celebrity gossip pages, but rather around deeper reflections, feelings, and insights. However, Rav Mecklenburg also teaches that some speech can, and should, prioritize connecting to the other over expressing the content of an idea.
We can see this phenomenon in prayer as well. Sometimes, the goal of praying is to convey the right words and specific messages. Other times, the goal is about the connection between a person and G-d, and the specific words used are of lesser importance.
The Mishna, in Pirke Avot 6:6, tells us that there are 48 tools which can be used to acquire Torah. One of them is “mi’ut sicha,” traditionally translated as “limiting idle conversation.” If we limit our mundane conversations, the Rabbis teach, we will become closer to Torah. I learned an intriguing explanation about this phrase which suggests that the word miut not be translated as telling us to limit, but rather that the only type of conversation we should engage in is mi’ut sicha or small talk; that this type of talk is healthy and generative. Connecting with others, having human interaction, is an important and integral part of achieving real growth and small talk can be an important method in achieving those goals.
Business people have long known that small talk is an opportunity for marketing. It is also known, making small talk effectively can make you popular, as people respond to those who give them attention. In addition, a series of scholarly studies in 2010 revealed that small talk can boost cognitive ability, especially executive functions. Thus, success can often depend on one’s ability to convey simple messages. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of two Presidents and their fates in the Presidential election of 1932.
Herbert Hoover was regarded as a hands-on businessman who, among other things had run the successful American food relief program during and after World War I, saving millions in Belgium, Russia, and elsewhere in Europe from starvation. This established his reputation as an efficient organizer and helped secure his election to the Presidency in 1928. However on October 25, 1929, with the stock market already fluctuating wildly, President Hoover issued a statement asserting that the American economy was “on a sound and prosperous basis.” After a few dry statements about construction and wages, he concluded with a reference to wheat bushel production, adding that this would “result in a very low carryover at the end of the harvest year.” This message ,with its uncaring tone and complete disconnect from what was causing a panic, did not resonate with the American people; 4 days later the stock market crashed, signaling the start of the Great Depression. Hoover’s inability to deal with the crisis, or communicate an effective strategy to combat the Depression, led to a dramatic plunge in his popularity, as well as in the confidence of the American people in their government, their country, and themselves.
In contrast, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a man of enormous personal charisma, who made those interacting with him feel like he truly cared for them and was concerned with their plight. For example, he possessed an amazing ability to remember the names of people he had met only once. When asked how, he claimed that he saw their names on their foreheads. However, a more likely explanation is that he developed a method of remembering people through nicknames; thus, one adviser was “Harry the Hat” Hopkins; even the infamous Soviet leader was “Uncle Joe” Stalin (though he was not called that to his face!). Roosevelt knew how to really engage and connect with people, on both large and small scales-an important criterion for a leader.
Immediately upon taking office, President Roosevelt had to deal with the collapse of the American banking system it, and restore a sense of security and hope to the banking system, as well in the hearts of so many Americans. He seized upon the method of a direct radio appeal to the American people. His “Fireside Chats” featured a small talk format, in which the President referred to his radio audience as “you,” and in which the talk revolved around basic explanations of problems. They were simple and casual, and made the audience-America-feel at ease. Most importantly, they were successful: after his “Chat” on the banking crisis on March 12, 1933, things began to turn around immediately. American quickly began making far more deposits instead of withdrawals from banks, and the American banking system was saved. President Roosevelt only made eight of these Fireside Chats during his first term, yet they had an enormous influence on the American public, and undoubtedly contributed much to his unprecedented four successful Presidential campaigns. The American people at large regarded President Roosevelt as a person who cared about them and their well-being; thus, was the social skill of making small talk used to help rescue a nation and its people in the midst of an unprecedented crisis.
Small talk is how we make others feel more comfortable connecting with us. We don’t just approach others with big issues, but also value them enough to approach them over smaller issues as well
The Gemara tells us that nobody ever initiated a greeting to Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, since he was always the first to greet them. The Gemara concludes “v’afilu nachri b’shuk,” one should even greet an unknown non-Jew in the mall-an encounter of seemingly little consequence in that time. The ability to greet and engage others warmly is at the core of Jewish virtuous living. One need not have a great intellectual master plan for conversation when approaching someone to meet them or greet them. Rather, one can merely seek to offer a smile and a warm connection.
While our intellectual conversations about our grand ideals are crucial to our self-definition, the conversations we have in the hallways and streets can be just as, if not more, important in defining us as both individuals and as a community.
This is not only true locally, but globally as well. Any student of social change who has been watching the revolutions in the Middle East over the last few years in countries including Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia knows that so much of the great impact and social change emanates not from boardrooms or palaces, but rather from hallways and streets and factories, and even from social media, places where people of all walks of life come together. This power of small talk can bring about deep, transformative connections. We are in an era of heightened small talk that will produce ripple effects around the world, where hundreds of thousands of people can be mobilized to action almost immediately. Repressive governments can no longer rely on censorship of print media and the use of armed force to be sufficient to oppress their people. The proliferation of social media has greatly weakened their power to do so, as we have seen across the Middle East and elsewhere.
We can also reflect upon moments where we have opportunities for small talk, and thus opportunities to establish relationships, in our lives.
• Kiddush at shul: A sign of an inclusive community is not just if one is welcomed when they initially enter the building, but if they feel welcomed and cared for when the food comes out. Are elbows thrown? Is one offered a seat? Is this a place for meaningful small talk and connection, or merely a place of rapid consumption?
• With the homeless —whether or not one chooses to give money, food, or other tzedakah to those they find in the streets, just interacting with our fellow human brethren who find themselves on the streets can be holy opportunities for smiles and perhaps small talk. When we stop to talk with a homeless individual instead of just passing them by, we are validating their presence and inherent human dignity—we are showing them that we see them, and that we acknowledge that they are just as human as we are.
• In the workplace—so much of the crucial relationship building happens in passing between meetings, at places like the water coolers.
• For family there are countless ways to use small talk. Ideology and meaning can be constructed at the elaborate Shabbat table-and while doing laundry or washing the dishes. The Rabbis even taught the importance of small talk between spouses before reuniting in intimate ways, offering a chance to reconnect more simply and softly.
Small talk can be fitting at many times in life. Personally, when I think back to my grandmother on her death bed, it was our final small talk rather than some profound statement that connected us even more deeply, even in those last moments of her life.
It is not only in the work of trying to change the world in Davos or Washington that requires change-makers and social activists to engage in small talk . It is also necessary in our intimate and everyday relationships, and in our sacred communal relationships, in what Buber calls “I / Thou” encounters, that offer deep spiritual connections.
May we all merit to make all of our words count: both our words of meaning, and our words of connection.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"