There is no history of stalled or stilted conversations – of those teas where, in Shelley’s words, ‘small talk dies in agonies’. In novels and plays, most conversation is useful or expository and hardly anyone ever struggles for things to say. Even in plays in which the dialogue is supposed to be like ‘real life’, like those of Harold Pinter or Mike Leigh, there is usually a point and a purpose to it (although I do like that desperate line in Abigail’s Party – ‘Have you always had a moustache?’ – and the final scene of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables is played out almost entirely in small talk and is all the more heartbreaking for it).
One of the consoling things about writing a book about shyness is discovering people who were even worse at small talk than me. In his memoir of early manhood, The Weald of Youth, Siegfried Sassoon writes of a family friend called Watson – he did not make enough of an impression to be gifted a first name – who could never think of things to say. His conversational opener was ‘Have you been to Macrihanish?’ Since this was a remote golf course on the Mull of Kintyre, it invited only the conversation-closing answer, ‘no’. When all conversation died, Watson had the same failsafe strategy: he revealed that he fed his chickens with salad oil. Sassoon sympathised with Watson, for he was a fellow sufferer. At a party in 1911, he spent the entire evening asking every one he met if they would be in London for the Coronation, and agreeing when they answered that ‘on the whole it would be just as well not to be’.
Alan Turing was astonished by his mother’s ability to persist in small talk with unforthcoming people, to work what he called ‘rope and pickaxe’ in the most inhospitable social terrain. Turing was not prepared to scramble about on even the gentlest slopes of small talk. If he was bored by what he called ‘vapid conversation’, he would simply walk away.
Unlike Turing, I do not regard small talk as a vice. I think of it as a vital life skill, but in my case acquiring it seems to be the work of a lifetime.