On Small Talk And Big Problems In The World


Dear Former Colleagues and Random Strangers In The Cafeteria,

You might have spotted me, sometimes, having lunch on my own in a corner. You’ve probably noticed that I often remained silent while eating with you. Of course it would be easy to classify me among the introverts and forget about it. Though I’ll readily admit that I am shy, I think perhaps we would all benefit from having a closer look at the situation.

Believe me, I actually used to talk a lot. I mean, a lot. All the time. The family archives attest it. Hours of video recorded by my grandfather prove it beyond any doubt – it’s almost embarrassing. And if you still don’t believe me, my brothers can testify.

But talking is one thing, and having a satisfying conversation is another. Probably because at times I have been lonely, I have an extra obsessive need of good conversation. Good conversation truly makes me happy. In fact nothing makes me happier than debating something so passionately with someone that we both lose track of time.

When I dig into my childhood memories trying to remember when I first felt this excitement and euphoria I associate with good conversation, I keep falling back around the coffee table. I always say that I started appreciating coffee itself much later than coffee time. I must have been about twelve when I started hanging around with the adults as they had coffee after lunch. While I couldn’t understand what they found so attractive about the dark beverage, I loved this moment. We would sit with family and friends, munching pieces of chocolate and putting the world to rights. The conversation was lively, we raised our voices, argued and disagreed – I thrived.

I have long thought that all conversations should be like that. I admit that I have been naive and arrogant. It probably has something to do with my socializing with philosophers and other social science freaks. You see, learning about things like theses and arguments really blew my mind. It opened a whole world for me outside of physics, and got me so excited I’m still trying to calm down.

But clearly, there is one skill I don’t have: I’m unable to produce small talk. I’m truly sorry if awkward silences made you feel uncomfortable. I just didn’t know what to say when I bumped into you at the coffee machine. Sometimes I preferred shutting up than hearing myself talking about the weather. I can assure you that I’ve been, and still am, working hard on it.

Despite my best efforts, sentences such as “let’s not talk about politics” still come to me every time as a slap in the face. I realize just how selfish and arrogant this can sound, but what I hate about small talk is that every time the conversation comes to something I’m excited to discuss, someone has to abruptly change the subject. I understand that the intent is to keep everyone comfortable, but these about-faces always hit me like a ton of brick. It’s like saying to me: “No. You won’t be happy.”

Yet thanks to you I have come to understand that in some situations, small talk is just appropriate, and I’ve learned to swallow my disappointment. I am truly grateful to you for showing me the value of smooth, pleasant social relations at work.

But then of course one cannot make big problems disappear by not talking about them. And somehow, political matters kept popping up in casual conversations. This mix-up drove me mad. Some problems just cannot stay in the realm of small talk, or we’re condemned to successions of snap judgments, clichés, and erroneous information. I remember some disappointing discussions we had about the situation in Greece last year. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean we should agree. I just mean that some statements call for arguments. As physicists, you know how to approach difficult scientific problems with caution and rigor. I’m a bit mad at you for not showing the same rigor when it comes to problems about the human world.

I’m sure you’ve heard the news about the elections in Greece. Perhaps you discussed this again briefly. To be honest, I’m relieved I wasn’t there. This way you savored your lunch without being inflicted my disapproving frown, and I savored the news.

No hard feelings.

other thoughts


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