Ian McMillan: Small talk’s big role in finding common ground

I GOT a taxi the other afternoon in a small town far from home. I sat next to the driver and tried to engage him in conversation.

“Been busy today?” I asked. “The usual,” he replied, as effective a conversation-closer as you’re likely to hear. You could hear the Door of Conversation clicking shut.

I’m thick-skinned so I persisted. “Colder this morning,” I said, rubbing my hands together to indicate that it was indeed colder.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Aye,” he said, moving his mouth minimally, if at all. Lesser conversationalists than me would have put off at this point, but not me.

“Did you see the match last night?” I enquired. I wasn’t really sure which match I meant, but it didn’t matter much because there’s always a match on last night, no matter where you are or what day it is, and it’s usually a good way of generating some small talk about own goals and the eyesight of referees. He shook his head.

As he spoke less I spoke more. “Getting away at all this year?” I asked, like a barber to a regular customer.

“No,” he muttered, with an air of finality. I gazed out of the window, ruffled and rattled. I was casting my net far and wide and he was ignoring my bait. You might be thinking that I should have just kept my mouth shut, but I like to establish common ground with my fellow human beings.

My dad used to do it a lot. “Lovely day!” he’d say to perfect strangers when we were on holiday. They’d often smile and agree as I curled in embarrassment behind him.

I never asked him why he did it but he once told me that when he was in the Navy and he was faced with a taciturn new recruit who was as loquacious as my taxi driver, he’d always ask the killer question: “Tell us how you joined…”

“I could be listening for hours after that,” he’d say. I guess there’s just a need in us all to make a bridge between strangers, to reach out and attempt to connect.

I was once walking round Merthyr Tydfil with a playwright; Merthyr is a bit like Barnsley, in that it’s a town that was once industrial and now isn’t, and is struggling to reinvent itself.

It was 1984 when the playwright and I walked into a pub in the middle of town, and so the ructions that changed these islands forever were just beginning and the struggle for reinvention was a little way down the road. We sat in a corner and because it was a long time ago the air was blue with smoke.

The playwright was an expansive type with long flowing hair and the kind of hat that, as Raymond Chandler once wrote, had been taken from its mother too young. He pointed at the old and prematurely old men hunched over pints and bags of nuts and boomed in a deep voice that shook the windows: “All these people have a story to tell; you just have to find out how to unlock it.” Imagine Brian Blessed with a Welsh accent.

All his sentences seemed to me, as a young wide-eyed lad from the Dearne Valley, to be full of a kind of hard-won bardic wisdom and I asked him, in the manner of a supplicant at the feet of his master, how everybody’s individual story could be unlocked.

He flicked his long curly hair away from his eyes, almost dislodging his own hat and the nicotine-brown flat cap of an old miner who was attempting to raise a glass of stout to his trembling lips and said: “You just go up to them and say ‘Things have changed round here, haven’t they?’ and whoever they are, however old or young they are or where they’re from, they’ll have a tale to tell.”

He wandered over to a table of tattooed teenagers to demonstrate. And he was right, their story lasted all afternoon and there was a lot of shouting and laughing and one of them ended up wearing the playwright’s hat, jammed low over his tightly-cropped head.

Establishing common ground. Having a natter. I think these are things we have to do more of even if we get rebuffed, like I did in that taxi that chilly afternoon. I got out and said: “All the best!” I tipped him more than I should, but even that didn’t raise a smile. I wasn’t put off, though. I’ve got to keep doing it.

Hard times are coming; we know that. Some of the places where people meet to talk and pass the time of day and engage in small talk are going to be closed forever. But we must keep talking, we must keep trying to engage with each other; in the end it’s all we’ve got, it’s the only hope for the future.

Getting away at all this year? Tell us how you joined. Things have changed round here, haven’t they?