In anthropology it’s called “phatic communication,” a form of social interaction characterized by seemingly insignificant speech. But far from being empty sentiments, phatic communication carries important messages. Its meaning is “I acknowledge you and I invite you to communicate with me.” Its an opening, a gesture which makes and maintains social connections.
While its function is not necessarily to convey specific information—the dates of the next festival, for example—the content of small talk differs based on the context or social setting. What we say is determined by where we say it. Let me demonstrate this via three contexts in which bellydancers talk: Facebook, café performances, and in the car traveling to events.
Facebook is the least intimate setting and works both phatically and informationally. Information is passed between friends about upcoming performances or bellydance festivals, and comments are posted about how those were experienced. Dance and other amusing and/or political videos reveal our artistic and political inclinations. But most Facebook comments are phatic: friendly updates on the author’s mood of the moment—“I’m too tired to live”—or imminent activities—“I’m off to Big Sur with my brother.” They are mundane communications for the most part, never developing into full-fledged conversations or deeply personal sentiments. They just say, “I’m here. Are you there?” They solve the problem of isolation.
At café and restaurant performances, bellydancers catch up with friends from the community, begin to get to know new people, and the talk becomes more particular. With friends, we exchange news on our personal health and employment situations. We may comment on the health of our dance community—the dangerous downturn in class and workshop attendance, for example. But between eating and watching the performances (maybe even getting up to dance during open floor sessions), serious conversations cannot be maintained.
In my experience, driving to day- or weekend-long festivals affords the greatest opportunity for truly intimate conversations. This is girl-talk at its greatest, a chance to discover one-another through personal revelation. It is risky; it requires trust and discrimination. We share our losses, our grief, and the hilarity of sexual relationships. Yeah, we say it all.
This, then, is where small talk can lead. It may start with “Check out this video I found on YouTube,” but it may lead to deeper, more enduring relationships. Remember, not all talking is about the content of the statements. The value of small talk is that it keeps the door open, creates possibilities, and invites further talk. So don’t give up on Facebook or disparage the mundane talk that goes on there or on the street or in a coffee shop…embrace it as a valuable social interaction. Savor the small things for they are the very stuff of community.