talk the talk

(since I’m one of the few not at ASA, I’ll try to entertain/enrage you)

My homeboy Fabio Rojas articulates a theory concerning the value small talk:

  1. Verbal competence: Small talk shows that you are minimally able to carry out a conversation. If you can’t wing the weather, what else can’t you talk about?
  2. Community membership: If you talk orgtheory, then you’re definitely part of the “in” crowd.
  3. Ability signal: Witty small talk shows intelligence.
  4. Information: Sometimes your partner really doesn’t know what the weather is like. They really appreciate hearing about it from you.
  5. Social construction of reality: Small talk and gossip help people define what is real for that group.
  6. Status signals: Choice of topic in small talk can be used to assert and manage status.
  7. Friendship ritual: Small talk is a precursor to stronger relationships.
  8. Hidden Identity Game: You can use small talk to drop subtle hints about your hidden identity.
  9. Institutional maintanence: If you small talk with others at work, you signal acceptance of the order of your firm.
  10. Normative Experiment: Use small talk to test out ideas at low cost.

I agree with all of the above. And I much prefer Fabio’s take to William Deresiewicz’s, which while true is so insufferably stated:

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

The first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it. Witness the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate.

But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college. (If I’d gone to Harvard, I would have learned to say “in Boston” when I was asked where I went to school—the Cambridge version of noblesse oblige.) I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.

I’m glad that Deresiewicz regrets his elite education for making him (apparently he had no choice in the matter!) unable to talk to the masses or be down with the gente, but eeesh, Fabio’s theory is so much more elegant, economical, and better theorized. Also, less insufferably narcissistic and scapegoating.

6 thoughts on “talk the talk”

  1. belle, I agree with that Fabio’s small talk discussion is pretty good. Deresiewicz’s comments about his experience reminds me of something that happened in high school. A few of my friends were heading North to the Ivies and to keep them “normal” a few of us created the Adopt an Ivy program to decrease the impact of, in Deresiewicz’s words, “Ivy retardation.” When I got an e-mail not two days after a friend began her studies at Harvard mentioning that she became a spectacle because she mentioned moonshine (you know, “they really make that stuff?” type of comments), I knew that everything was going to be OK.

    By the way, thanks for keeping those of us unable to make ASA this year entertained!


  2. I think that under #5, Fabio should include a vertical interpretation of this as well to address the Deresiewicz story (or link it to #8 in a different form of hidden identity). In other words, small talk can also help those from radically different backgrounds pretend that they are similar or equal.

    What Deresiewicz is admitting is either that this guy wasn’t even worth pretending or that he, Deresiewicz, just isn’t very creative. I’m leaning toward the first explanation. Small talk is like mini-collective effervescence. On a slightly larger scale, I think of crowds at sporting events and their un-raced, un-classed quality–which then quickly devolves into screaming at one another in the parking lot after the game.

    Race is messy in that it cuts through class differences vertically and thus ends up being confusing. It is confusing (but not totally, of course) for poor blacks, for example, who see a black appointee in a Republican administration. It is probably even more confusing for white liberals who think they have the only right to claim diversity.

    I think one major problem that comes from the omission of class in “diversity” is that however good (or bad) the intentions of the academics, policymakers etc., who include race and omit class is that they aren’t really spreading the wealth. Here, I am thinking of diversity programs at major universities as an example. I don’t understand why individual’s class backgrounds (aside from and including race) aren’t given more weight. You aren’t really changing much if programs are all just fighting over those same children of businesspeople and executives.

    And I second hillbillysociologist in the thanks to belle! You inspired me to write my first ever blog comment.


  3. I’m really torn on Deresiewicz. I badly want to say that the ‘education’ part of his argument is irrelevant, that upper class kids couldn’t talk to lower/middle class people to begin with and, via the isolation an Ivy provides, they never pick up that skill. But I also remember — not going to an Ivy — telling people I went to school “in Nashville” rather than “at Vanderbilt” to avoid accusations of being really rich/really smart and, after graduating, feeling much less comfortable with the people from my class background that I was fine around during high school, including a close friend.


  4. Thanks, everyone! Esp. Fabio!

    I’m slightly torn on Deresiewicz too. I’ve only ever attended state schools, but they’re UCs–so I got the whole high falutinness even though there’s a significant degree of socioeconomic diversity at some of the UCs (I went to UCI for undergrad). I grew up quite poor, and I have found that my education has sort of distanced me from my family, especially my parents, in that I was not raised to value art and culture, but actually spend money on classical music and ballet now, which seems so wildly extravagant when everyone was trying to get by and feed a family of eight back in the day.

    But I don’t necessarily think that an elite education (even one at the Ivies, where it is highly correlated to social isolation to a certain economic class) is the primary reason for an inability to talk to people of different classes. I really think that if one could try harder and recognize some common bond of humanity and take interest in another person, it would go very far. True, your efforts at connection might be rebuffed–I’ve certainly been called whitewashed and too fancy by people I grew up with–but really, that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try. Small talk is asking someone how they are, what they’re interested in, and trying to take an interest, be it celebrity gossip (which cuts across all demographics) or complaining about the price of milk.


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