Small Talk – is it really small?

 After living for a while in the Arabian Gulf, one can’t help but notice how small talk with total strangers is something most people struggle with and are rarely comfortable at.

Upon stepping into any elevator, most occupants are transformed swiftly from cheery go-getters into silent zombies staring idiotically at their smart phones or studying their own shoes as if they are seeing them for the first time.

Why are those brief moments we are forced to share with total strangers so awkward and intimidating to so many?

Look at the Americans, guys.

They are the undisputed masters of small talk, anywhere, everywhere and regardless of the purpose, situation or venue.

Which begs the question, why are Americans better in small talk than Arabs?

I have asked myself this question many times to no avail.


To get a better understanding of this issue, I turned to B.S. Humphreys; the noted scholar who heads the Department of Small-Talkiology within the Humanities section at Harvard University.

-“Why are some people better in small talk than others?”

-“You have to look at the big picture. Small talk is not for everyone. You have to know what to say, when to say it and how to say it. It all has to do with your attitude towards ice.”

-“You mean ice, as in ice-cream?”

-“No, I mean breaking the ice. Some people believe that ice is there to be broken while others believe it is there to be preserved.”

-“I am intrigued. Would you elaborate?”

-“In order to acquire strong ice-breaking power, one must develop a sense of topicality that suits the situation. Americans are the best in this activity. Having perfected the art of ice-breaking for so long; they are bent on destroying all the ice in the world.”

-“Seems like hard work.”

-“Absolutely, nothing should be left for chance. You should never leave home without being fully prepared for the small talk dose of the day. For starters, you should never attempt to quip about large, complex issues. Forget famines, droughts, civil wars, poverty, world hunger, child labor, ethnic cleansing, unemployment and so forth. Forget also the Arab-Israeli conflict, the failure of Arab Spring, mass killings and terrorist bombings whether by governments or terrorist groups. These issues are not for elevator talk. People who are late for work in the morning have a pressing issue with hot coffee much more than world crisis or current affairs.”

-“What should you quip about then?”

-“Small things – small talk is basically about small things. Like the weather, or the weekend, or the latest sports news – think Monday morning quarterbacking – or Mylie Cyrus’ brief costumes. Don’t get too personal. Don’t look at the stranger next to you and admire his shirt, tie or shoes. That’s a no-no. Same principle applies for ladies. That’s even a bigger no-no.”

-“Why are these topics more important to Americans than world affairs?”

-“You have to look at the effect of television. TV sets today outnumber people in the US for the first time in history. What does this tell you? It tells you that people are absorbing much more information from TV sets than they could ever possibly digest. All this pressure of information absorbing and processing has to be released somehow. Consequently, people in the US genuinely believe they are all latent entertainers yearning to be discovered and thrown into the paradise of fame. Hence they act as time-bombs waiting for that right “elevator-moment” to prove their talent.”

-“And where do Arabs fit?”

-“In my view, Arabs genuinely believe they are all latent singers. Look at this fascination with singers and singing talent shows – it’s insane! Singers In the Arab world probably outnumber doctors, scientists and economists combined. Which means humming and singing will be the new small talk for Arabs in the years to come. Mark my words.”

-“Is this the reason why Arabs generally tend to avoid small talk?”

-“That’s the First reason. When you believe deep down that you are a singer, you tend to treat strangers like dispensable fans and you refrain from initiating small talk with them. No one talks to fans. You just wave at their general direction – from a safe distance.””

-“What’s the Second reason?”

-“The Second reason is that Arabs are much better in big talk.”


 Artwork done by: Nawal Zahzah – 

3 thoughts on “Small Talk – is it really small?

  1. I believe the opposite is true! Arabs are more open than Americans to any talk. However, there are times when Americans don’t have anyone to listen to them, they they start the talk and never stop…

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