It is a piquant irony that I, of all people, should be forced to defend small talk, a practice in which I am neither a skilled nor enthusiastic participant, but thus have the fates decreed it. I must say, my esteem for Dan Ariely has taken a plunge after reading this article, which reads as if a social engineer with severe autism has legislated that conversations become key parties.
Now, as many supercilious, antisocial adolescents have long observed, small talk is often frivolous and tedious. But like many sub-optimal practices, it has evolved that way for a reason, given the inherent difficulties of easing tensions and forging bonds with complete strangers. Ariely and Berman note that their experiment works precisely because it is structured, or “socially coordinated” — being informed in advance of the new rules governing this particular social interaction obviates the need for individuals to tentatively feel their way through it by means of light conversation. Festivals like Halloween, which temporarily subvert the normal order and expectations of social life, are also powerful and exciting for that reason, but only a freak raised in a Skinner box would conclude that we could and should routinely go around wearing masks and costumes because it makes us feel creative and liberated. Likewise, heady talk about “creating new social norms” which make all the participants “happier” based on superficial metrics is the kind of hyper-rationalist delusion one might expect to read about in a history of utopian intentional communities. A practice like this could only function in very specific situations with clearly-understood rules; blurring the boundaries between random strangers in public and PostSecret is not likely to end well.
The unexamined axiom here is that deep, profound conversation is what we all truly desire on a ritual basis, and if only the inefficiencies of the oppressive system were removed, we would blossom in our natural, uninhibited state. But perhaps bad faith is our natural state. Perhaps we secretly appreciate shallow living while making occasional aspirational gestures toward deeper meaning and significance. Perhaps the forced intimacy of Ariely’s dinner party would be an unwelcome mirror and harsh light to our self-image. Only the most naïve idealists go around overturning rocks that have been secured in place for ages and expect sunshine and charming melodies to come forth.