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The Lost Art of Small Talk

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 “>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 “>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 “>Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of ““>one of the top 50 rabbis in America!”
 

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