“Small Talk” is very African: In Defence of Small Talk.

September 29, 2014 § 11 Comments


One of the things that confuses me about us modern Africans is our sudden hatred for small talk. The idea of small talk is really foreign, if not a Western one. It became fashionable to say that we hate small talk once we started hearing that there was such a thing. I don’t know when I first heard that there was such a thing even. What I am sure of is that it was not something I ever heard in the villages or the townships.

When in the villages, one always sees people talking simply for the enjoyment of engaging in conversation, not because there is some deep philosophical discussion taking place, it’s just people enjoying each other. Rarely would you two strangers walk past each other and simply exchange a ‘hello’ and carry on. They would exchange pleasantries and then carry on. In fact, the pleasantries would carry on even after they had said goodbye and are walking in opposite directions, they would talk to each other until their voices faded. This is the beauty that we are losing and will most certainly lose, probably in our life times.
We no longer enjoy each other simply for the fact that someone is a human being. There must be purpose for talking to someone these, which is most unfortunate. I suppose there was a purpose even back then, but it was simply to enjoy someone else’s voice and what it has to share. It was about recognizing the other person’s humanity – ubuntu bakhe.

As Steve Biko put it, “Westerners have on so many occasions been surprised at the capacity we have for talking to one another – not for the sake of arriving at a particular conclusion but merely to enjoy communication for its own sake.” And he went on to say that, “No one felt unnecessarily an intruder into someone else’s business.”

Which reminds me of something strange when I went to a boarding school when I was 10. A boy came up to me and asked to be my friend. I was surprised and taken aback because I had assumed that we were since we hung out together with other boys anyway. I asked him why he would even ask that. I think my question embarrassed him, but I was simply confused by the question. I had never heard of it ever being asked. People who hung around together were friends. Maybe I thought that way because I was one of a few boys who had actually joined the school who came from a village. I was friends with everyone I grew up, including the boys I fought with. Everyone else was from some town or township.

I am sometimes accused of engaging in small talk and lack an ability to wean myself from people in a social setting. Although to be honest, I get away from some conversations as fast as I can because that is what our society has become and I too am contributing to this.

In fact, in Xhosa, the language that I speak, there is no word for small talk that I can think of. I suppose what would call small talk one could call “ukuncokola”. It means much more than just chatting, it’s a conversation and enjoying what each is communicating to the other.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that the reason black people Tweet more frequently than white people (some study says this, even in the US it’s the case), it is because of our need and desire to just communicate and chat for the simple act of having a conversation. It is something we cannot shake off and I hope we never do.

Perhaps we call it small talk now because we have lost the art of ukuncokola. Or we are just too busy hurrying off to place and people and things we will forget anyway.

§ 11 Responses to “Small Talk” is very African: In Defence of Small Talk.

  • Loyiso Gqola says:

    Awesome piece! Let Small talk reign! (I think I suck at small talk but ncokoling is something I can do 🙂 ) …

    And can we get a facebook+twitter+Goggle plus sharing icons. Dankie boet.

  • sue says:

    Just now I was complaining to friends about a lady that seems to b all chatty towards me at the office , I called it small talk .. Egg on the face moment ..

  • Andile says:

    I am so guilty of this! I find small talk to be so meaningless and mostly awkward when we no longer have ‘small’ things to discuss. But on the contrary I love ukuncokola 🙂

    The difference for me is how forced ‘small talk’ feels and how effortless ukuncokola is, I generally ncokola with people I like and suffer through small talk with people I have to tolerate.

    Great article, as always 🙂

  • Lucky Nene says:

    Social media and internet is killing ukuncokola, you found people of the same neighbourhood, use same public transport everyday, but abazani

  • nkamo says:

    I like the explanation behind us tweeting and just posting a lot(lol and responding and commenting)…re mpa fela re hlorela ho qoqa le batho…nice 1

  • I think most people have an aversion to the “Nice weather we’re having.” kind of small talk. But even big talk can have a way of being small talk. It’s all in the company, I guess.

  • Rachel Khutjo Kganyago says:

    This is an interesting piece, and you’ve made some really good points. Funny enough, about 2 days I posted on facebook about just how exhausting ‘small talk’ is.
    While I respect your opinion on small talk, I still see no point in small talk. I dislike being part of a conversation that has no conclusion or doesn’t yield any ‘results’. I don’t know, maybe I’m too consumed in the capitalist way of living.

    I believe, if it’s not important, why bother wasting your energy on it?

  • Yours Sincerely, Lulu says:

    I am one of those Africans who don’t like small talk. But clearly I have been wrong all long and it makes better sense in the way you put it. But just to justify, the thing I really don’t like is that people are just lazy to communicate mindfully and so they always end up talking about the weather etc. They end up bethetha about the same thing every time they see you. And you’re right, where we come from (as Africans) there is no such thing as small talk but the conversations are meaningful even if they are about the weather. When they talk about the rain or sun it’s in relation to the crop or harvest.
    I always enjoy reading your work. It forces me to think introspectively.

  • Yours Sincerely, Lulu says:

    Reblogged this on lulunjapa and commented:
    Interesting read.

  • Sindiso Tiny Matseoane says:

    Small talk is a very interesting concept. I have to say that I agree with the notion in defense of it. I never thought of it in the context of it forming a part of my African identity until I read this blog. Personally, it’s a way to ‘break the ice’ on the first meeting and get more comfortable with the company we keep at a given time. I honestly don’t have anything against small talk so long as it is not the core of the entire conversation

  • Sindiso Matseoane says:

    I agree Khaya, small talk forms an integral part of our interactions with others. That otherwise trivial conversation allows people to understand each other better,building somewhat of a better connection between the two or three people who take part in it. I for one am not an avid small talker but understand the importance of it, especially in our African communities. Great post, made a lot of sense.

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