One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in It's a nice day, or You're very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you all right? At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behaviour; if human beings don't keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up.
After a few months' consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favour of a new one. If they don't keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working.
Conversation with other human beings is still the main method we use to communicate with each other, at least in a face to face manner. There's nothing particularly personal about email after all.
Small talk is the glue that binds social gatherings together. Social gatherings such as weddings and house parties tend to be characterised by a lot of people standing around making small talk, usually holding a glass in one hand and a food morsel in the other. The mouth opens and shuts, and the brain spends most of its time wondering when is the right time to attack said food morsel and whether it's a one or two-bite canape.
There's nothing wrong with small talk, in fact it's vital to the success of any conversation. It's like the suet the holds the Christmas pudding together. It provides a vehicle for the good bits, and otherwise you'd just be eating mouthfuls of dried fruit laced with alcohol (actually, maybe that doesn't sound too bad). However, suet on its own makes for a pretty dull pudding, and small talk on its own makes for very dull conversation, and I'd argue that small talk alone becomes conversation simply to avoid the alternative: silence.
Just as Christmas pudding needs the fruit, small talk needs to be laced with occasional moments of big talk. I define big talk as matters which are personal, matters which are important, matters which are controversial. Small talk is the low-risk inoffensive patter that skirts these bigger topics.
I'd like to see some rules invoked nation-wide, so that people are clear on the small talk/big talk balance. These rules could be displayed in wedding venues, hired-out rooms above pubs, even people's living rooms when it's time to get the street round for Christmas drinks. Pubs generally have pool-table rules laid out clearly next to the tables to avoid confusion and argument, and this would merely be providing the same service for social gatherings.
Here are the rules, as laid down by me. (You should feel free to add to this list, or amend as necessary. Once people become au fait with the rules, you might want to take your A1 sheet down from the wall, but it may be wise to have small laminated rule cards on your person, just to dish out to any surprise guests, or first-time conversationalists.)
1. Always start with small talk
Never bring out the controversial topics too early. Everyone likes to settle in with a nice wide loosener or half-volley, and you'll swiftly find yourself on your own if you come in with a rant about the immigration problem in the area. Try kicking off with a conversation about how you know the host, or maybe a query about what your conversation partner happens to be driving at the moment.
2. Choose your moment to bring in the big talk
Wait for an appropriate prompt. If your chosen chat-protagonist regularly uses a Boris bike (small talk), this is the moment to bring in your thoughts about the coalition's handling of the debt crisis (big talk). Don't miss your chance mind, and shy away from the big talk. Now is not the time to mention Boris' buffoonery on HIGNFY.
3. Some small talk is too small
There are some topics of conversation that are so small, so pointless and so clearly just a way of avoiding silence that they should be banned from ever raising their heads. These include questions such as how did you get here? or where are you for Christmas this year? No-one cares.
Right, I'm off to find someone in the street to ask them whether they feel that religious belief implies the existence of a God-like being. Wish me luck.