The need for the companionship of others is one of the fundamental features of human social nature, and talk is a primary form of human communion. “Small” talk is a type of talk through which we mark co-presence, e.g., the mutual recognition provided by threat reducing talk to strangers in a lift or neighboring airline seat. This need to commune through speech is also enacted across distances (intimacy-confirming phone calls, texts, emails to significant others, friends, family). Within small talk, what is talked about may matter less to participants than the interpersonal significance of talking at all – in a range of social contexts – from intimate, playful encounters (e.g. “pillow” talk) to formal, hierarchical gatherings (e.g., in breaking the ice at the beginning of a job interview).
Hence the recent emphasis within research on social interaction on the social functioning of small talk (Coupland 2000). Small talk constructs social cohesion, reduces the inherent threat value of social encounters, and helps to structure social interaction. As humans, we have significant emotional investment in the impressions others gain of us (Goffman 1972), so our social competence, as displayed through our use of small talk, is crucial to our well-being. Some of the more formulaic aspects of small talk, as often used in service encounters, e.g., enable servers and customers to define a generally positive relationship while they talk (Coulmas 1981). Such transitional moments of communication are often marked by conventional or ritualized language (“phatic communion”), with participants sharing predictable, “safe” topics, such as enquiries about well-being, comments about the local environment, “purposeless expressions of preference or aversions, accounts of irrelevant happenings, comments on what is perfectly obvious” (Malinowski 1923, 150). This is the type of talk that affords connection to colleagues while they gather for formal meetings at work, for example.
Small talk may thus function as avoidance of, retreat from, or delay of talk which is more serious, challenging, or power-ridden. In sociable small talk, people pay (sometimes sustained) topical attention to the safe, the superficial, with attention to detail and displayed preference for agreement, verbal play, and humor, as in “banter.” Eggins and Slade (1997) claim that the fact that “nothing happens” is the central paradox of “casual conversation.” Of course, all talk carries social and affective meaning, along with its representational or task-focused aspects. And participants in talk are likely to orient to relational or “face” issues, alongside more instrumental or task-related issues, in a more or less sustained and strategic way, across a wide range of social contexts and activity types. In medical consultations, e.g., conventionalized formulae such as “nice to see you,” comments about the weather, even an opening “how are you?” may be oriented to as polite, humanizing ways of broaching the medical business. And when small talk is used by the paramedic to stop the casualty drifting into unconsciousness, it is being used to serve a very serious, task-related function.
But small talk is a broad and differentiated generic category, which can also incorporate potentially unsafe and threatening themes, as in gossip. In many definitions, gossip is linked with newsworthy, critical talk about others (usually absent third parties), and (traditionally, though not more recently) with “women’s” language. Unlike small talk more generally, but like rumor, gossip is seen as a form of talk that is essentially information giving. Here, what is talked about does “matter.” Gossip is often but not exclusively realized through storytelling, with much of the disclosed information being confidential or personal. The ambivalent nature of gossip is that it may create nervousness and anxiousness, but also fascination (cf. the relish of being filled in with all the “latest gossip”): we may be doubtful about how honorable it is to talk behind someone’s back, but enjoy it nevertheless.
The related notion of backstage talk captures the privacy or secrecy associated with gossip, since, crucially, gossip involves pejorative evaluation of social behaviors, appearance, or other aspects of the protagonist/s. Due to the face-threatening themes, participants in gossip talk are likely to monitor their interlocutors carefully – and to include only “safe” recipients, or those who signal willingness to partake; friends, family members, close colleagues, and intimates. In gossip, people tell stories or anecdotes about others and thus attend to what people should or should not be doing (Eggins and Slade 1997). Thus, gossip is said to function as a sanctioning mechanism, by a kind of “moral policing,” whereby conversationalists can construct and assert collective values and thus establish normative boundaries. This allows participants to negotiate aspects of group membership, and the inclusion and exclusion of others (Goodwin 1990).
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- Coupland, J. (2000). Small talk. London: Longman and Pearson Education.
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