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This weather is absolutely miserable, isn’t it?

Not because it’s particularly bad, far from it in fact (most people are going to have delightfully low heating bills this year, I’d imagine). The reason this weather is perfectly frightful, is that boring people with nothing better to say appear to enjoy talking about it. To everyone. Lifts have become a minefield, the office canteen a firing range and don’t even get me started on hairdressers… In fact if the weather doesn’t turn into whatever it is supposed to be like at this time of year, I’m going to start resembling a reclusive, lank-haired hippy, so keen am I to avoid that most painful of afflictions… I speak, of course, of inane small-talk.

The dedication to small-talk is a curious quirk of the human mind. Our brain is supposed to be stimulated by things that interest or challenge it, which makes it strange that upon meeting anyone we seem to veer instantly to the opposite. I’m not for a minute suggesting that when stuck in a lift with someone you should lecture them on Descartes or open up with “a train leaves London travelling 60mph, at the same time a train leaves Birmingham going at 45mph…”. That would be odd. But why, oh why, do we just head straight down the path of least interest?

“How was Christmas?”

Probably, like 99% of the population it was a mixture of chaos, happiness, excess and stress. Even if it wasn’t, do you really care? It would take a fairly extraordinary response to make you not just glaze over and nod before plonking “yeah, pretty much the same with me” at the end, as you desperately scramble to get off-topic.

“I actually went up to the Arctic Circle with the Pink Panther, Eddie the Eagle and the ghost of Winston Churchill, where we ate stuffed peacock under the Northern Lights and drank champagne drawn freshly from the nipple of a penguin…”

“Oh right, yeah. Did something pretty similar myself…”

Now a week into the swing of work after the festive period, I’m pretty sure I know what everyone in the office did over the break. But then again, I knew what they were doing from the pre-christmas water cooler small-talk, so it’s hardly enriched my life. I’ve just experienced the same information in an enthralling variety of tenses.

Of course, the boot fits perfectly on the other foot as well. The moment we leave the office, we find ourselves swamped by questions from people demanding to know what we do for a job.

At what stage did this become the most interesting thing about someone? When did we decide that upon meeting someone new, we have to know what they do with (presumably) the least enjoyable part of their day? I suppose that is all in the way we construe the question. We assume that the question of “What do you do?” is referring to career and answer it as narrow-mindedly as we can. Perhaps we should advocate more expansive answers:

“What do you do, then?”

“Oh, I wake up unnecessarily early, don a suit and sit at a desk for 8 hours, flicking between Facebook and some spreadsheet I don’t understand, before coming home and numbing myself from the harsh realities of my disappointing existence by watching a load of insipid crap on television, then going to bed. I’ll usually try to factor a few loo breaks into the equation too, while the weekend is the same but with more alcohol and less consequence. And you?”

It would be interesting to gauge someone’s reaction to that. It could be worth a try.

At the root of the problem though lies every human being’s fear of ‘awkward’ silences. I have no idea who organised the rebranding of silence from “golden” to “awkward”, but somewhere, someone is to blame. Everyone seems to think that by talking, they are comforting themselves. Friends talk, so surely it’s the right thing to do? Yes, but friends also have something to talk about, and crucially they actually like each other. That’s a moderately key factor in the whole ‘friendship’ lark.

But no, we’ll overlook those factors, the sheer idea of silence terrifies us. We’re worried that if we just shut up for a minute that we’ll be exposed for the terrible frauds that we are. Just look at The Apprentice (a show we point and laugh at, except that those idiots are just exaggerated and unfortunately-edited portrayals of ourselves). When the contestants have nothing to say, and this is especially true in the interview stage, they just spout complete bollocks. To its credit, the programme is very good at picking up on this and ridiculing it, yet the next morning you’ll essentially be doing exactly the same thing when someone asks you about the weather. Because, like the rest of us, you’re unbelievably boring and full of shit.

by Harry Harland