‘What’s the craic?’ was an expression I grew up hearing, a child born of Irish parents. ‘What’s the goss?’ my Kiwi friends would say, and ‘What’s happening?’ We all wanted to know what was going on, whether it was things that affected us locally and personally, or events occurring elsewhere, perhaps not even in our own country, which would bear little or no relevance to our own lives.
We were passing on that which would be useful for us to know – road closures, power outages, which garage had the cheapest petrol – and that which was simply chat, the craic, small talk: who’s had a third baby in three years, who’s sold the house and moved North, who’s moved in with someone else’s husband, five pups to Lockie’s Meg, get in quick to get one.
When I was small I was surrounded by chattering; it was above me as I held tight to the pram handle; it congregated in bus queues and buses, grocery stores, supermarkets, railway stations. I wondered how all the grown ups knew how to talk to each other, how they knew what to say, and who spoke when and for how long; I wondered about the craic, and how you went about learning it. I looked at other silent children holding onto hands and handles; we eyed one another speculatively, and if we had brothers and sisters pushed them about a bit in one-upmanship, and we absorbed the art of small talk.
We learned it well, there had been nothing to fear after all, as we passed on who’d made the football team, who’s dad was sleeping in the caravan, who’d kissed a boy – and then kissed a girl. We watched Friends and Seinfeld, essentially sitcoms about friends who sat around and talked, and then we sat around with friends and talked about Friends and Seinfeld. We had all learned the craic, the art of small talk, even the shyest of us.
I have had some of my most memorable encounters in queues, queues in toilets, queues in men’s toilets where like-minded women know the shorter queues are, queues at airline counters, train stations, concert venues. Places where we stood in lines with often like-minded people, waiting for the same outcome to the queuing, and chatted about stuff. Swapped names maybe, travel stories in getting to the queue, defeats and wins, weather, music, anything really, that people talk about when they make a connection.
But I’ve started to wonder about the future of the craic, the future of small talk, when most people in a queue are on their phone or have headphones on, when awkward intermediate school dances have students texting one another from across the room, but not crossing that space and actually speaking in person. I also use my phone when I’m out and about and sometimes have headphones in, and I’m not anti-technology. But I am anti about losing the human touch, about failing to nurture those little bits of chat, those exchanges that let us know that we see and hear the person who is in front of us, even for a short time.
Over my last few months of keeping an eye on small talk, I’ve met some excellent people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise—a psychic who told me I hadn’t lost what I thought I had, I’d misplaced it, and to keep on looking; the retired baker who’d built the shop opposite forty years before when it had been a truck stop; a female boxer; a young girl couple who held hands and talked about buying groceries online to be more disciplined in their eating; an older man walking his twelfth dog.
When I was at school and a teacher left the room, the chattering would grow to be decibel-high, the volume an excited reflection of children who often hadn’t been able to voice their own thoughts, feelings and opinions during lessons. Each person who has a bit of chat engages however briefly with another’s views and exchanges, even if it’s only a smile and remark about the weather. It opens us up as humans and gives some small but important purpose to our lives, and we need to make sure it thrives.
Yes, we can read about the Italian marathon runner running with the bulls in Pamplona, but wouldn’t we rather talk to him as we queue for pizza, rather than looking at a screen? Don’t we have something to say about how he was much smaller in real life, but was really friendly and chatty? Something we want to pass on to our friends or acquaintances face-to-face, rather than forwarding?