JUNE 26 — I’ve been reading an amazing book by Daniel Kahnemann, a Nobel Prize winner, called “Thinking, fast and slow”. In his introduction, he states that he wrote the book hoping to improve the quality of typical office watercooler conversations where people normally exchange gossip and other quick news.
What is the quality of your watercooler conversation, do you talk about the weather, the people around you, your own life, and work? Or do you also throw in occasional quantum physics, the theory of evolution, social psychology and so on?
You have small talk every day with your husband or wife, friends, colleagues, shopkeepers and so on. How many of these short conversations can you remember? Have you just tried to remember one or two and then given up?
I went backpacking in Latin America recently and found that I had to really build up on my resource of small talk with which to communicate with other travellers I meet at hostels and such like. I had gone on holiday almost immediately after my end-of-year exams and found that initially I was fairly incapable of talking about anything other than the weather and the scenery, otherwise dangerous words such as pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism (yes, that is a word and a condition) would escape my lips from the large amount of cooped up information in my head.
My fellow travellers quickly changed that by talking about their work, their travels elsewhere and many more interesting things, and I have learned a lot just from quick conversations with them over dinner or hanging out at night in the dormitory rooms.
The conversations I had with them were much more memorable because they forced me to talk about something other than what was at hand, and at university quite often I find that we always invariably end up talking about work because it is an easy mental task to dredge out things that we have been surrounded by all day to use as ammunition for small talk. With my schedule and thought content focused entirely on school as we studied fervently for our exams, it really is no wonder that I was almost completely depleted of interesting conversation.
It would have been far too taxing on my brain to retain interesting non-work-related thoughts in addition to the zillions of facts that I already kept there.
Kahnemann’s book points out that mental energy is a real entity, and people generally become quite intellectually lazy, for the want of a better word, because they find that thinking hard is difficult and requires a lot more effort and energy than they would otherwise be willing to part with.
Intelligence, he points out, is the ability to make quick connections and apply them, but also the ability to resist one’s instincts whenever it comes to a mentally difficult task, because one’s instincts always tell one to either give up or give the first answer that occurs to them.
This leads to small talk being, well, small. When it really shouldn’t have to be, because as I have discovered time and again, expending that additional mental effort to talk about something interesting or difficult really leaves one with a sense of satisfaction and achievement at the end of the conversation.
These are the conversations generally labelled as “meaningful” and “special” in your memory because you know that you and the other party have really spent some effort on it together. The additional effort of it makes it more memorable than all the other conversations you have in a day that actually require no mental effort whatsoever.
This is analogous to how athletes remember the really difficult race they had to run in the rain and with a twisted ankle much more than the training run they have every single day at the same time in the same place with no problems.
With diseases like Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia around in the world, ready to destroy our minds without a by your leave, perhaps it would be prudent of us to really push our minds whenever we can, solve difficult puzzles, learn difficult things, have complicated conversation and complex thought processes leading to interesting conclusions.
Because you and I can remember (perhaps with a tinge of guilt) how you zoned out when someone was talking to you as you were driving your car, or just ignored whatever a lecturer was saying because it was too complicated and you needed some time to soak it up, and a thousand other incidents when you turned off your mind because the situation was getting too difficult and ended up giving in to your instincts.
So the next time you’re standing at the office watercooler with a friend, talk about something interesting and begin a journey of ideas that may lead you anywhere and everywhere. Have more memorable conversations, feel empowered as you solve more complicated scenarios. It’s like mental exercise, the more you do, the better you feel, the healthier you get. Read more, learn more, listen more. Who knows, this may be the end of small talk for you.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.